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January 22, 2020

The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner

My week of catch-up reviews of popular American novels everybody else read ages ago—I NEVER promised to be a blogger with her finger on the pulse—continues with Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, a novel I had zero interest in until I heard him on the since dearly departed podcast, The Cut on Tuesday—with his mother, no less. His mother who is Harriet Lerner, author of the iconic 1980s self-help book, The Dance of Anger, and we learn that she is fictionalized in her son’s new book, with her own point of view, even. And that The Topeka School is connected to Ben Lerner’s two previous novels about Adam Gordon, who is a literary representation of Lerner himself, and this new novel takes him back to his roots, to 1997, as 18-year-old Adam makes his way through his final year of high school, aspires to the highest echelons of school debate championship, having grown up in the state that gave the world Bob Dole who’d gone up against the beleaguered Bill Clinton in 1996 and lost. This is not a straightforward narrative, moving back and forth in time and between perspectives—Adam’s, his father’s, his mother’s, and a troubled classmate whom Adam had grown up with but who socially and intellectually falls behind, a ticking time bomb. The novel a study of male rage and anger, drawing connections between debate and rap stylings, and also to the national discourse, whose divisiveness begins heating up at this point until it boils over into the mess we have today.

January 21, 2020

Fleishman Is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

I was going to say that I don’t know how I missed out on the Fleishman Is In Trouble hype, except it occurs to me that I totally do. I didn’t know anything about its author, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, first of all, a seasoned magazine writer, so her name wouldn’t have led me to pick the book up (especially since her name is Taffy, which is the funniest name since Flossie). And besides, she’d written a novel about a man in the spiral of a midlife crisis and the only thing I’d care about less than that is the story of a young man coming of age (ugh), so I just didn’t bother.

But then people kept posting about the novel on Instagram, and all the posts had comments from other people who’d read the book and loved it, so I was curious. So curious that I eventually put the book on hold at the library, except that I was more than 500th on the holds list… Which came up in conversation when my daughter was sitting on my lap one Sunday morning and we were reading over the 2019 New York Times top 100 list together—she likes to practice her reading. My husband overheard me commenting about my interest in the book, and the library hold situation, and had a brilliant idea—so I got the book for Christmas.

And by Boxing Day, I’d read the whole thing.

The novel is like a roller coaster, powered by fury, and the reader is flying by the seat of their pants from the first few pages. Fleishman of the title is Toby Fleishman, a successful doctor whose success will never compare to his high-flying talent agent wife’s—they’re getting divorced anyway. And New York, in the decade and a half since Toby was last single, has become a city packed with women who are seemingly desperate to have sex with him, which is certainly novel. It’s almost enough to make him get over his long time body image issues and insecurity due to his (lack of) height—but not quite.

But when Toby’s ex-wife, Rachel, drops off his kids one night and disappears, it puts a cramp in his style, not to mention makes arranging childcare difficult at a pivotal moment at work—Toby is up for a promotion. And this is just one more crime to add to the list of unforgivable things that Rachel has done over the course of their life together. Rachel, it seems, is a heinous bitch.

Sounds straightforward enough, right? And this novel starts off in the tradition of legendary male authors whose smutty books about fragile egos, hissy fits, and emotionally tumultuous love affairs about got to be literature because their narrators had penises. But then something strange happens, which is the appearance of a first person narrator who has been telling the story of Toby Fleishman all along. Like a reporter, even, which is not so surprising when it emerges that the narrator is the most unobstrusive Libby, a friend who’d met Fleishman twenty years before on their year abroad in Israel. And now, after many years and post-break-up, Fleishman has reached out to his old pals to help absorb the shock of his new life. Libby is, in fact, a reporter who finally quit work after the birth of her second child and has settled down for stay-at-home momhood in the supports, a situation which she is, shall we say, conflicted about. But where exactly is Libby coming from?

And this, sneakily and strangely, becomes the central question of the novel, which also eventually comes to fill in the mystery of where Rachel has been in her weeks-long absence, after Libby runs into her in a bagel place looking strangely dishevelled. A novel whose furious narrator writes about the invisibility of women, and how nobody ever listens to women’s stories anyway, unless there’s a man at their centre.

Which is shocking and profound, and the reader is implicated in this in the most terrific way, and the resolution to all this is never going to be tidy. It’s not simply a matter of Rachel’s story setting the record straight, or Libby even being capable of being objective about the situations she’s been presented with, because she has her own agenda. The peculiarity of this novel, an odd three-headed beast, being that it’s not one person who is the victim here, or even everyone. Or maybe it’s that it’s everybody and no one, and that life is too complicated for such obvious designations, and journalism often doesn’t seem up to the task of addressing these matters these days, but maybe here is where fiction comes in.

January 20, 2020

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.

January 16, 2020

Spring Books on the Radio

I was on the radio today (live, in-studio!) talking with Wei Chen on CBC Ontario Morning about a handful of Spring Books I’m looking forward to in 2020. You can listen online if you missed it live—I come on in Part 1 at 41.41 (though “Blinding Lights,” by The Weeknd, is on right before me, so you might want to listen to that too).

January 15, 2020

Marching

I don’t know that so much has really changed since that November night back in 2016 when I’d baked a Hillary Clinton victory cake in determined optimism. (“And if she loses,” I’d decided, “at least we’ll have cake.” But that cake tasted terrible.) The only really substantial change has been that I’ve since had my eyes opened to the realities of the world, to the fact that people in general are less kind, wise and curious than I used think we were, and it had been my privileged position to exist without having to know that.

But one more thing that’s different—these days I also keep a collection of broomsticks on my porch.

The broomsticks are fitting really, because most of us haven’t heard this much about witch hunts since the 17th century, although our family doesn’t use our broomsticks for flying. (At least, not yet.) Instead, our broomsticks are for marching, which was an altogether new experience for us as we joined tens of thousands of people at Queen’s Park on that mild January Day for the 2017 Women’s March. As we walked through our neighbourhood holding our signs (duct-taped to said broomsticks, and also a couple of dowels I’d picked up at the hardware store), it already felt like a parade, neighbours leaving their houses holding their own signs, passing cars honking their support.

I remember the ground softened by mild temperatures, my green rubber boots going squish in the mud on the lawn at Queen’s Park, and how it seemed like everyone we knew was there. And how everyone who wasn’t there was out on a similar march in cities all around the world. I remember feeling hopeful for the first time in months, and that maybe we weren’t so alone after all, and good things were possible. People spread out as far as I could see in all directions, an endless horizon of humanity who’d come out to stand up for social justice, and perhaps all was not necessarily defeat.

The Women’s March was originally cast as a failure, even before it had taken place. In the weeks before the event, as there were struggles about organization and inclusion, so many pundits and cynics declared it just so, but the march itself defied them. The march itself, of course, being the team of organizers on the ground that organized events in towns and cities all over the world, in Toronto, in my particular case. And I don’t know that I will ever be able to properly be able to express my gratitude to those organizers for what they gave all of us that day, for that light in the darkness. For rekindling some hope, and making us feel part of something bigger and stronger than tyranny or authoritarianism.

In spite of an event that broke all precedent (and almost broke the president!) and managed to set records and change the world, the narrative of the Women’s March being fraught would continue to be perpetuated. There was a breakdown between an administrative body and local grassroots organizers. There was controversy among those who’d been figureheads of the March in the US. Subsequent marches did not bring out the same numbers. In 2020, in Toronto, there would not be a march at all.

And yet.

Three years later, there is that collection of broomsticks on my porch. Since January 2017, when none of us had ever marched in the street before, or ventured outside with a political slogan on a button, let alone a placard, we’ve pulled out our signs and demonstrated to show support for refugees in Canada, and for International Women’s Day. I’ve joined small demonstrations of strangers to counter anti-choice protesters on the sidewalk. We’ve taken part in Fridays For Futures, strikes to stand up for climate change action, and I’ve even organized rallies against education cuts in our school community, and joined our neighbours back on Queen’s Park to stand with Ontario education workers. In the two years following January 2017, we all marched in the Women’s March again—last time in the midst of a blizzard.

I am not an activist. I say this not because I don’t respect activists, but because I do, and I don’t want to take credit for any of their work on account of a handful of broomsticks. Although what is an activist anyway, but an ordinary person who cares about things and is willing to make a stand for a better vision for the future—which is the kind of people we resolved to be in the aftermath of that terrible night, as we choked down the crumbs of that very sad cake.

I’ve been to enough demonstrations by now to be less delighted by old women who can’t believe they still have to protest this shit, or the ones who’d been buried but no one knew they were seeds. But I still believe in seeds—I do. And I know the seeds planted on that January day three years ago will continue to bloom in years to come. I know that the Women’s March, for so many of us, was a political awakening to our responsibilities as citizens and neighbours to help build the kind of world we want to see.

The Women’s March has ended—but it was only supposed to be the beginning anyway. And now the rest is up to us.

January 14, 2020

Back to the Blog: One Year Later

I’m certainly no Faith Popcorn, but I think I called it. Almost exactly a year ago, as part of my 2019 intention to conduct myself with more audacity, I declared The Back to the Blog Movement. Was I not blogging because the world no longer made any sense, or had the world stopped making sense because I wasn’t blogging? And as the near year began, I decided perhaps it was the latter, and embarked on a reset and rediscovery of the blog and its myriad possibilities.

And I wasn’t alone, because because my Back to the Blog post got tons of responses, brought new readers and blogs to my attention, and—in the true tradition of old-school blogging—inspired a handful of other writers’ blog posts, including Meli-Mello (my blogging friend of more than a decade!), Rebecca Rosenblum, Shawna Lemay, and my fave swimming blog.

As the year went on, the movement picked up steam, as CanLit blogging pioneer Bookninja returned to blogging, and Steven Beattie resurrected his blog That Shakespearean Rag, and (tongue in cheek, of course) we all know that it’s when men start doing things that people begin to pay attention. (I find blogging and gender fascinating. Of course, it’s impossible to talk about blogging in general terms, because blogs can be infinite different things, and a gendered lens only makes it more so. I once read an entire book about the history of blogging that didn’t have a single woman in it [nary a mommy blogger, nor a knitter, even!] save for the one woman founder of Blogger, who only appeared in the book while running out of a meeting in tears.)

It was good to have these book blogging stalwarts back, and to have connected with other bloggers too throughout the year so that my own blog-reader got longer. I also started a weekly series called Gleanings, in which I went back to the blog in an old-school round-up sense, posting links to the pieces (at blogs and elsewhere) that made the internet a worthwhile place for me to be a reader.

In March I wrote the post “Why Your Own Small Corner of the Internet is Going to Make the World a Better Place”, framing blogging as a way of taking back online spaces, countering the toxicity and meaninglessness of a lot of current internet discourse. “Blogs are important in 2019 because they aren’t underlined by corporate interests, because what parts of them we read aren’t determined by algorithms, because of their focus on language at a moment when politicians are making meaninglessness into an art form, because of their obscurity even and how they give us the freedom to explore off our own beaten track, because they’re not part of an industry that’s flailing, dying, desperate. There’s nothing desperate about a blog. ”

It was the spirit of blogging (and audacity!) that carried into my two big projects of last year, establishing the boutique bookseller Briny Books and my online blogging course Blog School. The idea that small things matter to real people, that little steps can take us somewhere, guided the same DIY ethos that has been inherent in blogging since the beginning. From 20 years (!) of blogging, I have learned that the path is meandering, but it takes us places, and that we get there by putting one good post in front of the other, by simply not stopping. Even when we’re tired. Even when it seems like nobody is reading. Even when the world doesn’t make any sense, but it’s when the world doesn’t make sense that we need blogging most of all.


MAKE THE LEAP is the guided and interactive version of my online course. It’s running throughout February, and it’s an ideal program for writers looking to make the leap to blogging with guidance, feedback, and community engagement. I’m looking forward to spending the month working with a great group of writers, having fun pushing the limits of what blogs can do, and reading and sharing inspiring posts. I hope you’ll join us. Spaces are still available, including one last discount space for students already enrolled in FIND YOUR BLOGGING SPARK.

SIGN UP TODAY!

January 9, 2020

Gleanings


MAKE THE LEAP in 2020 is the brand new guided and interactive version of my online blogging course. The course runs through February. If you’re looking for a hand, guidance, feedback and community support as you make the leap to blogging this year, this course is for you. Sign up today!

January 8, 2020

A Delicious, Meandering Journey

‘Interestingly, I find myself leaping/flipping/scrolling past the “best of” lists and instead gravitating more and more to the reflections about reading as exploration, revelation, often deliciously meandering journey, shared experience, opportunity to bust out of staid categories and forge new ones … and more.’ —Vicki Ziegler

Sometimes I think I spend my whole year reading just go get to this point, when the best-of lists are compiled, required reads for book club or review assignments are completed, when the literary year is done and dusted…but there’s still at least a week of time for reading left.

Which is when I turn off my WiFi, take an internet break, out-of-office reply—”I’ll get back to you in the new year.” And I sit down to read.

I read differently in the holidays, when the working is all done. Instead of new releases (because I don’t want to miss a thing), I turn to yellowed paperbacks purchased at book sales, back-list titles by authors I love, strange books plucked from Little Free Libraries, and rescued from the streets. Books that are easy not to make a priority in my literary year, but on holiday, they take precedent—and my reading life is so much more interesting for it.

They weren’t all winners—after having now read two books by Ottessa Moshfegh, I think I can finally conclude that her work is just not to my taste, for example. But altogether, these books were part of why my holiday was so lovely—and I loved too their connections, how they spoke to one another, as though book after book was just one book, and the story flowed and almost made sense.

Of course, it wasn’t all obscure. Ben Lerner’s new novel, The Topeka School, is one of the top rated books of 2019, and I bought it after hearing Lerner and his mother Harriet Lerner (author of iconic book The Dance of Anger) on a podcast. Hot tip: if you want to me to buy a book by a man, make him fictionalize his feminist mother in that book and even give her a point of view. I’d already tried to read The Topeka School twice, but had been diverted, not because anything was wrong with it, but other books kept showing up before I got to page 12. Finally got past page 12 (third time’s charm) and really liked this one, and had my mind-scrambled by its meta-ness. It was such a curious and interesting book, which captures a cultural moment (1997) that was pivotal in my own experience (I turned 18 that year, and the memories are very vivid) and connects that moment in several ways to our present.

I also read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, another top book of 2019, and am so glad I did—plus it reminded me of Jesmyn Ward’s 2018 Sing Unburied Sing, I loved the depiction of 1970s’ New York, and oh, the twist. The book is brutal, but there is more to the novel than just that.

The third 2019 book I read was Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, which I got for Christmas. I never get books for Christmas, because I’m very much a self-directed book buyer—but my husband heard me talking about how I was more than 500th on a wait-list for this book at the library, and bought it for me. And I loved it so much. Probably deserves a post of its own, but yes, it had everything and was so devourable—by Boxing Day, I’d got to the end.

Had very much a New York streak going on, especially between the Brooklyn of Lerner’s book and Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary, and Fleishman and My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

And then I left town to finally finish Elizabeth McCracken’s Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry, her first book re-released along with her latest, the novel Bowlaway (a novel that was delicious and meandering itself, and also one of my favourite books of the year). The mingling humour and sadness—she’s such an incredible writer.

And then Woolf’s Night and Day, which I bought in the summer after I saw an ad on Instagram for a 1970s version of the novel whose cover I fell for. It’s always funny to be reading early Woolf, back when her narrative style was so conventional. The characters were a bit wooden, and the story more about ideas than its people actually being realized, but it was still really enjoyable, and Woolf after all.

And speaking of conventional, Penelope Fitzgerald is conventional never, but The Beginning of Spring (which I finished reading on the morning of New Year’s Eve) is perhaps the most straightforward of her novels that I have read. (As I’ve written before, learning to appreciate Penelope Fitzgerald is a project of mine.) I like to read a bit of Penelope Fitzgerald during the holidays out of nostalgia for the year I read her biography by Hermione Lee, which was one of the best reading extravaganzas I have ever had. Anyway, The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in 1913, and this reviewer calls it Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. I really loved it.

Before the year was out, I had also finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, a book she wrote in Italian about the experience of learning and then to committing to reading and writing in Italian. (Which would lead me to Natalia Ginzburg—but first!!)

First, I ended 2019 and started 2020 with At the Pond, a collection of essays (a gift from my friend Nathalie) about swimming at London’s Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, contributors including two of my favourite swimlit stars (Leanne Shapton and Jessica J. Lee) AND my very favourite everything, Margaret Drabble. Nice to be returned to the London of Night and Day, although Katharine Hilbery never went swimming.

(On New Year’s Eve, Stuart and I both had Taylor Swift’s “London Boy” in our head, which is a terrible song, the situation exacerbated by the London locations of our respective reads [Stuart is LOVING Girl Woman Other, which, incidentally, was the second book I broke up with Ben Lerner for] and every time anyone in my book mentioned Highgate, I’d start singing, “…And I love his best mate. All the rumours are true…”)

Two things I loved about At the Pond: cultural diversity of the authors made it such a more interesting collection than it might have been. And the essay by nonbinary writer So Mayer on their complicated relationship with the space “for women only”—which has long welcomed transwomen among them without fuss, save for the activists who showed up at a recent community meeting in furor about this.

Then I read The Secret Sisterhood, about women’s literary friendships, which I bought in March on a weekend in Niagara on the Lake with my two best friends of more than a quarter century. The Jane Austen chapter was a bit slight, but I enjoyed the book and nice to bring things around with the final section on Woolf and Katherine Mansfield—especially since it focussed at lot on Night and Day (which Mansfield wrote a scathing review of, which made their friendship at bit…awkward).

And finally, All Our Yesterdays, by Natalia Ginzburg, the kind of book that it might be possible to put off reading forever, because it’s old with an unappealing cover, and pages and pages of dense text. I’d bought it at a colleage book sale last year after reading Gizburg’s essay collection Little Virtues, but novel sat unread on my shelf. And then I gave it away to my local Little Free Library, which I regretted after running into an Italian-Canadian friend at the library who was returning a pile of Ginzburg’s novels in their original language. She extolled the authors virtues, so when I happened to walk by the Little Free Library and saw All Our Yesterdays up for grabs, I stole it back. Finally cracking it open now because Jhumpa Lahiri had also written about Ginzburg, and it seemed like a sign.

I loved this book. Sweeping, strange, curious and compelling, it’s the story of two families in Northern Italy and how they change as WW2 arrives and continues. The narrative is very matter-of-fact and understated, creating a sense of inevitability (it actually reminded me a but of Girl Woman Other, how a single story can contain so much and so broadly). The banality of living under Fascism, and then occupied Italy after the Germans arrive, and the casual brutality of war.

Now I really want to track down a copy of Ginzburg’s Family Sayings, which won the Strega Prize and which seems to be cited as her best work. (PS Just found out it’s in print with the title Family Lexicon. YAY!!)

January 7, 2020

MAKE THE LEAP with Blog School!

In September, I launched BLOG SCHOOL: PICKLE ME THIS, and my first offering was a self-directed blogging course called FIND YOUR BLOGGING SPARK.

Self-directed, I thought, because self-direction permits bloggers to work at their own pace and convenience. A self-directed course, I figured, meets a writer where she’s at.

And it does!

But there are some people looking for a little more direction than the self can provide, who thrive on goals and deadlines, plus the community support essential in getting ‘er done.

And these people have been asking me for a different version of the FIND YOUR BLOGGING SPARK course, an intensive, community-based, guided and interactive version where students can ask questions, get feedback, work to goals, and benefit from community support.
 

And now MAKE YOUR LEAP in February 2020 is here!

What You Need to Know:

  • Course is online (via private website) so that you can study at Blog School from wherever you are
  • Course is interactive, so you can ask creative and technical questions via email and receive feedback on your work
  • Community components will take place on a private Instagram page, so that it’s easy and straightforward to take part   
  • Course enrollment is capped at 10 people so that the group is neither too big or too small, but just right
  • Modules themselves are self-directed so you can take part (with two modules with be completed per week) according to your own schedule
  • Course takes place throughout February 2020 so that you can stay focussed and excited about your project, which you’ll complete with momentum to build on
  • Each module includes a writing exercise to generate ideas for future blog posts
  • Each module features a writing assignment so that you will complete the course having 7 new blog posts published
  • Modules are structured as blog posts so you can get comfortable engaging with the blog format within the course itself
  • Each module comes with optional further reading to inspire you with the work of other bloggers and creative people.

Cost: $300.00 CDN

*Three spaces will be available for $80 for students who are already enrolled in the Find Your Blogging Spark Program.

Sign up for MAKE THE LEAP

January 6, 2020

New Year Reflections

Nobody got sick. I think it’s safe to say it now, with the holiday over and the children back to school, though I felt uncomfortable even thinking it during the break, a jinx. Which is just one of the reasons that our holiday was so exceptional, the other being that Stuart took two full weeks off work and therefore so did I. A low-key affair—we didn’t travel far. But it was all of it such a pleasure, and has me thinking—as we return to routine—not about new year’s resolutions, necessarily, but instead about what elements of our holiday I’d like to carry with me into the months ahead.

  • Less Time on the Internet : I took a full seven day break from the internet and it was amazing. This is the most important answer to the question of how I got so much reading done (see below). It did wonders for my stress levels. It was so nice to be reminded that if I do something beautiful and it doesn’t get instagrammed that it still happened. When I finally went back online in the second week, I did a lot less posting and scrolling, and I want to keep this up (or down). That said, I do now have a backlog of blogs to catch up on, but that is not a bad thing.
  • Board Games: I like board games for the same reason I like reading with my kids—it allows us to connect on a common level and I want to work on nurturing these connections as my kids get older. I have many aversions when it comes to games (Stuart calls it my “board game face,” and knows as soon as he sees it that I’ll be asking, “Like, what’s the point of this?) but there are many I do enjoy, and we spent a lot of time this holiday playing these, which was good fun for everyone.
  • Reading: “I’m going to try to get into reading in 2020,” was the hilarious joke I kept telling over the break, and because I’m better at reading than I am at humour, I came away with 14 books read, a splendid and eclectic mix of titles that I’ll be writing about in a further post this week.
  • People: My favourite parts of the holiday were times spent with family and friends, and I want to continue to nurture these connections in the coming months. Especially in the winter, it’s sometimes easy to retreat from the world, and sometimes asking to make plans seems like a risky endeavour (what if they say no! Schedules are tricky to accommodate!) but I am so glad we made the plans we did over the holiday. Speaking of which…
  • Cheese boards: Did I by Lisa Dawn Bolton’s book On Boards because we were entertaining a few times over the break, or did I make plans to entertain because I needed an excuse to buy a copy of On Boards? Who knows, but I am sure glad it all worked out the way it did. I learned so much from this book, our guests were seriously impressed (and at least twice ended up purchasing the book themselves!), and the Christmas Day cheese board we made in lieu of a roast dinner has changed my life. I might never roast turkey again.
  • Letting things slide: I don’t know if you could say I was easygoing over the holiday, because this is me, and the fact that I’m writing about this at all defeats the argument, but I feel like I was a little less ridiculous. The one example I can point to is that we started the Globe Holiday Crossword, had fun with it until we didn’t, and then stopped doing it. I would like to be more okay with not finishing things in the new year, or maybe what I mean is not insisting on doing things for the sake of doing them. We also woke up more than once on a day with no plans, and I want to keep that kind of openness and possibility going too.
  • Chocolate: I want to keep eating chocolate. I probably don’t need more of an explanation than just that.
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