December 20, 2014
December 18, 2014
I don’t know that I’ve ever come across a more unlikely Christmas tale than Graham Greene’s The Little Steamroller, his fourth and final picture book.
Harriet was a big fan of The Little Horse Bus awhile back, and she liked The Little Train too, but it’s true that The Little Steamroller is perhaps the least inspired of the lot. It’s worth reading for its absolute strangeness though, for being a distilled version of a Graham Greene novel. The Little Steamroller works clearing the snow at London Airport, and ends up foiling a diamond smuggling plot by The Black Hand Gang, a nefarious pack of smugglers operating out of Africa. All this takes place over Christmas, which the Steamroller is looking forward to, because he gets very few holidays (one of which is the August Bank Holiday, and it always rained on August Bank Holiday) and because Bill Driver will wrap up his nuggets of coal in Christmas paper.
Greene’s picture books were originally published in the 1940s and 1950s, illustrated by his mistress Dorothy Glover (the projects were intended to provide her with an income, which I think makes these books delightfully unwholesome in origin; Glover would later end it with him when she discovered there was a third woman in the mix). Our copy is one of the 1970s’ reissues, with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, but even with this “update”, the book has a decidedly vintage feel. I don’t suppose it helps any that our copy was purchased at a yard sale, and appears to have been stored for a time in a flooded basement.
Learn more about The Little Steamroller and other Graham Greene picture books at Ariel S. Winter’s blog, “We Too Were Children, Mr Barrie,” where an important question is raised but left unanswered: why ever was a steamroller being used to clear snow anyway?
December 16, 2014
I love this book, whose prose is as whimsical and delightful as its illustrations. Its chief appeal is that it’s about love, and even comes close to describing that indescribable love we have for our children, but not before getting silly before it gets saccharine. The silliness is so good, and so is the word play, and the pleasure the book takes with words in general. Plus, Harriet is fascinated by this being a book about a hypothetical book, because she adores books in books. Of course she does.
We have a huge stack of Jon Klassen’s books at our house, and his latest with Mac Barnett is beloved for its weirdness, its humour, its dog and its cat. It’s fun to read in the same deadpan voice as I Want My Hat Back, and it cleverly situates the reader as an omniscient force in the narrative, which is really empowering…until the very end when nobody knows what’s going on. Which is kind of amazing.
Iris is chief music lover (and singer and drummer and bum shaker) in our household, and so she’s getting this book for Christmas, just so it can do some preaching to the choir. Smith (whom we know from Sheree Fitch’s books ) is a fabulous illustrator, and musician Barber knows what she’s talking about, so I think we’re going to have a lot of fun with this book, which explores the world of music and how all of us can play.
The fourth book in Cote’s Piggy and Bunny series is her best yet. In it, the two friends go camping and find that courage and fear are relative things, and both friends can be a comfort to the other. It’s a good story with a surprise twist at the end, but I am really fond of how Cote creates a second canvas (ha) with the friends’ tent, on which they create shadow puppets to add tension and a whole other layer to the story. It’s a clever device, and the book is sweet and fun.
We are all besotted with Covello’s Toronto ABC, from which Iris has learned that there is indeed a tower on her horizon, and she points to it every time she goes outside. It’s a beautiful book, up to the moment, and a gorgeous celebration of our city and all our favourite places—the ROM, the Islands, streetcars, High Park, the AGO, and more. This kind of book is a perfect lesson for kids about how books connect with the world.
And speaking of cities, no one else writes cities in picture books quite like Bob Graham does, including the graffiti and the homeless woman pushing a shopping carts, because he wants his books to be as beautiful and complex as the world is. His latest is really wonderful, about the whole wide world and how it hinges on a single moment in which a baby takes his very first step. And I don’t just love it because I read it while I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, and the connection between the two books was just uncanny.
If you know Zita the Space Girl, that you’ll be thrilled to know that its creator has published his first picture book, which is as weird, wonderful and full of mystery as the Zita books. It’s about a girl called Julia whose house is on a turtle’s back, and when she settles down by the sea, she finds it all a bit too quiet. And so she opens her doors to various creatures requiring homes of their own, which brings its own complications. Being an awesome, enterprising young person, however, she figures out a way to solve her problem, and to make her house a proper home for everyone—including herself.
This one is wrapped up and waiting under the Christmas tree, but I can’t wait to read it with Harriet. Jeffers explores the alphabet, letter by letter, imbuing each letter with a personality and life of its own. For those of us who can’t get enough of abecedarian things, the book will be sure to delight, and young readers will find it a quirky twist on their usual ABCs.
Kulling’s biography of Lillian Gilbreth (who was mother of the family from Cheaper by the Dozen, not to mention a psychologist, efficiency engineer, an inventor, author and eventually a single mother to 11 children) is fascinating and Gilbreth is a great example to boys and girls that there is no limits to what a smart girl can become. Plus, she invented the shelves in your fridge door, and check out that checkerboard floor. Whoever said the domestic was dull?
I love Luxbacher’s gorgeous collage illustrations, and the sense of cultural history revealed by the story of the clothes a tailor has sewn over time—army uniforms, psychedelic mini-skirts, ripped jeans in the ’80s. But now Mr. Frank is about to sew the creation of his life—a caped ensemble that will impress those readers who are particularly enamoured with all things super-heroic. This is a super-hero story of a different sort, and a great celebration of grandparents.
Out of one kitchen and into another with this acclaimed book by a children’s literature dream team. Loosely based on the life of Julia Child and her friendship with Simca Beck (though a note advises readers to take the whole thing with a grain of salt), the story is one about the pleasures of cooking, and butter, and friendship. And to the importance of never forgetting what it is to be a child—the recipe for a happy life, perhaps?
In Peach Girl, Nakamura turns the Japanese Momotaro folktale into a feminist celebration of feisty girldom. Momoko hatches from a peach, and then sets up to defeat an ogre in her quest to make the world a better place. She’s gutsy, unflappable, and inspires her companions. Spoilers: the ogre is just misunderstood, and they all partake in tea. Rebecca Bender’s illustrations of the Japanese countryside are stunning.
Iris is still pretty choosy about books, but we have a feeling she’ll be into this one, another Christmas present. Rose’s photos of squirrels doing human things are pretty hilarious, and she’s created a fun narrative from them all. But it’s most impressive when you look in the back of the book and learn how Rose set up these photos in her own backyard (mostly by hiding nuts in her set-pieces). Iris won’t really get it though, and she’ll just like it the same way she likes the squirrels in our backyard, which she points to while shouting, “Meow!”
This one is pretty much my ideal picture book: great images, empowered heroine who makes things, who wields a hammer, who dares to express her rage, and it all turns out okay. The takeaway too is invaluable: sometimes you have to fail in order to get anywhere. It is okay to mess up. Hard work is hard work. Perfectionism is anathema to creation. I don’t know if there is anything else I really care if my children ever learn. I love this book: the most magnificent thing indeed.
It’s not often I read a picture book with a line of prose that bowls me over, but I was really struck by “…until the sun got snoozey and settled down, down on an orange cloud, toward the lip of the sea.” I love that Fisherman Through and Through is so literary—the fishermen are called Ahab, Peter and Santiago. Though the kids won’t notice that, but they’ll be compelled by this story of wishing and dreaming, and extraordinary miracles thrown up by the sea. Um, plus there is kind of a string of bunting on the cover.
December 15, 2014
One day I want to write about how I met Stuart and life properly began, and how all the energy that I’d previously directed toward trying to make people fall in love with me (and despairing when I always failed) became channelled into useful things. I stopped thinking that “Angie” by the Rolling Stones was a really romantic song. Suddenly my eyes were open and I could see the world, and we began travelling together, learning and growing. I spent a long time before that convinced that I wouldn’t really exist until somebody loved me. This was stupid in retrospect, and contrary to all my feminist principles, but my experience has proven that there was some truth to the notion—that I needed somebody. He’s my enabler in the very best way. And because we met when we were 23, we’ve also grown up together, which is an extraordinary thing to share with someone. When we met, our cumulative possessions would fill two backpacks. Which made it pretty easy for us to run away to Asia a year and half after that, and those experiences would cement our relationship. We’d never argued before—there was so much negotiating and learning involved in figuring out how to live together, and in a foreign country at that. But we made it, stronger for the struggles, and at the end of that adventure, we were yearning for home, so we got married, and began the process of making one here in Toronto, and for two years, we had no money and lived off chickpeas and couldn’t afford to take the subway, and were oh so slim. Whenever I think back to that time now, a part of my brain spends a split-second trying to remember where the children were, until I realize the unfathomable fact—they weren’t there. We didn’t know them. And the paradoxical thought that comes with that one—how miraculous that they’re here at all. I read a line in Gilead today that made me nod, the narrator writing to his son: “…it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.” I know precisely what he means, but I feel it toward my children’s father as well. That there is a Stuart in the world—I will never quite stop marvelling at that. And that he wasn’t always in my world, when he seems as much a part of me as my limbs are—how did I ever get around? Which was probably much of what Mike Reno and Ann Wilson were getting at in their hit song “Almost Paradise (Love Theme From Footloose)”, which is a part of the repertoire in every karaoke room I’ve ever sang in. It’s curious really, because there is no place else you ever hear that song, but it is a karaoke mainstay. We sing it every time we go, at my insistence, and Stuart goes along with it. Though we hadn’t been out for karaoke in ages—not since before Iris was born. But on Saturday night we went out after the children were in bed and we celebrated 12 years since the night we met, and we made wonderful, sweet, terrible unmelodious music together, and came home after midnight.
December 14, 2014
I feel strange about this list. First, because my reading seemed less monumental this year—I missed the blockbusters like The Goldfinch, or The Interestings. Second, my local bookshop closed, which is from where so much of my zest for reading came—I am sure I missed many books that in previous years, Book City staff would have kept neatly stacked on their new books table. And third, there are so many 2014 books I haven’t read yet. The scramble to get them all read was making me crazy, so I gave up, and now they’ll have to wait for the new year.
Luckily, books keep. Case in point: there are books here on the 2014 list that weren’t published in 2014 at all.
While this is kind of my Top Books of 2014 list, I’m thinking of it more as The Books In My Head list. The books whose reading experiences I remember so vividly, the books I kept talking about, whose characters, stories and ideas have lived on in my mind long after the last page was finally read.
In a particular order, which is alphabetical.
Fitting though, that Caroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces is topper most. It may well have been. This is the book that was oddly overlooked by awards juries, and yet readers have embraced it, Ellen love-ins taking place on Twitter and Facebook quite regularly, I am finding. I have recommended it widely, and only received glowing reports back. It’s a funny, brutal, rich and challenging book. I’ve never read such an unflinching story of cancer (and love, and aging, and motherhood, and mortality). As I wrote in August, “It’s a brave take on things, really, but typical, because the exquisite nature of the entire book comes from Adderson defying her readers’ expectations, surprising you with every line, with every turn of the page.” I do think that Ellen in Pieces is THE book of the year, and you’re missing out if you haven’t read it yet.
I read Lisa Bird-Wilson’s Just Pretending in May, starting it while we were visiting Winnipeg, and just after reading Pat Barker’s Union Street, a collection that situates the lives of working-class English women similarly to how Bird-Wilson presents First Nations women in Canada. At the time, we were promoting The M Word and it was Mother’s Day, so Bird-Wilson’s themes of motherhood resonated with me, and complicated my own understanding of these themes in my comfy middle-class context. The stories in Just Pretending portray “the wholeness of marginalized women’s experiences, experiences which hinge on maternity, on motherhood and daughterhood, and on what happens when these connections are broken,” and they’re so important now with untold stories of Canada’s Indigenous women’s experiences finally being brought to (some) light.
It was on Mother’s Day weekend that we visited Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge, the same day that Steve Burrows was appearing there to promote his book, A Siege of Bitterns. I was happy to buy a copy, as I’d been intrigued with his novel about a birdwatching detective, and I was so pleased to absolutely adore it. Unsurprisingly—the book has received rave reviews. The crux to the mystery’s solution involved not just birdwatching, but grammar. This book is a geek’s paradise. I’ve also been pleased to have happy readers reporting back after following my recommendation for this one. And good news: Burrows next title in the Birder Murder Mystery series is A Pitying of Doves, out this spring. I am so excited.
I’m so grateful to the good people at All Lit Up, without whom I might never have discovered Megan Gail Coles and her story collection Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome. Which contains this paragraph: “The reason Garry did these things was ’cause he couldn’t afford any better. Half of what he earned over at Pretty Paws was carted off to Newfoundland. Child support for an autistic kid he had with Slutty Marie down Gilbert Street, this the result of a one night stand./ Have you ever heard a sadder story, Dame? I mean, really? I barely poked her. We weren’t even lying down. It’s like her body sucked me sperm right inside her that night, vacuum cunt on her. Don’t ever have a go at the neighbourhood whore in an alley. Nothing good will come of it.” How could you not want to read this book?
Unfortunately, as 2014 progressed, Karyn L. Freedman’s One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery only became more and more important. I read it last spring as I pushed my baby in a swing. “The world, [Freedman] tells us with two decades of perspective in addition to her own violent rape, is a dangerous place for women, as statistics demonstrate in places as close as our own neighbourhoods and as far away as the war-wracked Congo. But nobody talks about these experiences, suggesting that such incidents are rare, suggesting to those lucky enough to not know better that sexual violence is a crime of circumstance, that it’s something most of us should be able to sidestep. It’s why newspaper columnists suggest that if a young woman refrains from drinking to excess, she might not get raped, and if she is raped, she should have known better. Thereby perpetuating victim’s sense of her own complicity in the crime against her, ensuring her silence, and so the cycle continues.” I’m so pleased that this book has been shortlisted for the BC National Non-Fiction Award.
I read Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood by May Friedman in September, and it was huge for me for all kinds of reasons. It laid the framework for the latest session of my blogging course, convinced me of the usefulness of academic theory for the very first time, and also that the history of women and blogging is one that is seriously under-documented and certainly worth telling. While Friedman’s research pertains to mommyblogs in particular (and her conclusions are always surprising, illuminating—if mommyblogs seem tired to you, she invites you to think again), it’s also hugely relevant to women and blogging in general, and is a fascinating and nuanced depiction of 21st century motherhood. And mostly, I am so struck by her notions of the usefulness of uncertainty (which reminded me of Rebecca Solnit, and ultimately led to cake): “In trying to form conclusions about mommybloggers—and about mothers—I am reminded of my children attempting to jump upon their own shadows: I am attempting to trap an essentially untrappable form of knowledge. After the initial discomfort and frustration that this inconclusive conclusion elicits, however, I have found that there is much to gained, as a researcher in general and as a motherhood researcher in particular, in looking instead at uncertainty as a valuable critical lens.” Feminism desperately needs this kind of approach, which is a fitting response to the complexity of actual people and the world.
I remember reading In Love With Art by Jeet Heer on one of the first few days this spring when it was warm enough outside to walk and read without mittens, or it’s possible that it wasn’t actually that warm, but I was just enjoying the book so much. Francoise Mouly is a fascinating biographical subject, and I’d never heard of her, but unbeknownst to me, I’d seen her work—she was a long-time Art Editor of The New Yorker, and she’s the founder and Editorial Director of TOON Books, whose books we’re in love with at our house. And thisbook found its way into my (cold) hands just as Harriet was started to really get into comics, so I was pleased to learn so much about comics as an art form, and also the process behind comics creation, and what is entailed by the role of their editor. It was an excellent book, part of Coach House Books’ Exploded Views series of short books about big things, and I do love me a paperback that fits in my pocket.
I only read The Bookshop That Floated Away last week, but I was so taken by Sarah Henshaw’s book, and I think that I’ll continue to be as much. We’re planning at trip to the UK in the spring, and top of my list of things to do there is tracking down the book barge. It’s the ideal book for anyone who ever thought that opening a book on a boat sounded like a perfectly sensible idea, and I loved its unabashed oddness, the absurd adventure, and all the references to books and reading, and also to Victoria Sponge Cake.
Plum Johnson’s They Left Us Everything was the most terrific memoir, ostensibly the story of a woman cleaning out her parents’ house after their deaths, but it’s also a record of a wonderful family history, about the curious shape and contents of archives and the stories they tell, about caring for aging parents, coming to terms with the past, the complexities of daughterhood and motherhood, and understanding our parents as people in their own right. I’m so pleased that it’s been nominated for the 2015 Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction.
Hermione Lee’s biography, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, was the first book I finished in 2014, and it was how I spent my holidays—so so delightful. And anti-social. Biographers don’t come much better than Lee, and lives are rarely more interesting than Penelope Fitzgerald’s—though hers did pose a challenge for the biographer considering that all her early papers were lost when her houseboat sunk on the Thames during the 1960s (where she was living in abject poverty, barely supporting her three children. She went on to publisher her first book at age 60, won the Booker Prize at 7o). Fitzgerald’s novels had always seemed obscure to me, but their author’s life story has cast them in a new light (and I am excited for the new editions with covers by Julie Morstad).
And oh! Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald, the book that inspired me to write over 1300 words in response. I love how this book has been everything to everybody—I read the review that said it was about anxiety, the one that said it was about being queer, and to me it was all about motherhood. What a fascinating book that can be read through so many different lenses. I also am intrigued by the weird and wonderful ways Adult Onset flirts with genre, oh so subtly. It’s a book about parallel lives and parallel universes, ordinary city sidewalks rendered fantastic.
Speaking of sidewalks, I still remember walking up Bay Street toward the subway in August reading Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken, a hardback no-less. I was hooked from the first delicious sentence: “Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees.” I loved this book, and its stories: “Many of them are about grief, about the peculiarity of details during the times in life in which we’re grief-struck, or stricken at all. They’re about human connection in surprising places, about misunderstandings in which the connection is missed. Their about the things that get lost and what we choose to preserve. They’re funny even with the sadness, a many sided shape. And they’re absolutely extraordinary.”
Last summer I reviewed All Saints by KD Miller in The Globe and Mail. “Most of [Miller’s characters] are searching for meaning; Miller – in language that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but bends to suit her purposes – uses the small moments in life to illuminate big questions. Where did the story start? What is destiny? Is there an order to the universe, to a life? But a life, we learn, is only a piece of the puzzle, meaning and wholeness only emerging when separate lives connect. Crucially and compellingly, such connections are mysterious – Miller shows how we are all figments of one and other’s imaginations.”
For a few weeks in February, I was deep into the memoir Know the Night by Maria Mutch, which I reviewed for The National Post, a book I read twice and puzzled through with so many notes, and figured out like a complicated math problem—so utterly engaging. All to the soundtrack of “Mercy Mercy Mercy” by Cannonball Adderley. “Know the Night, a memoir about a boy who doesn’t speak, is in love with language. Mutch’s prose is electric (when describing her relationship with her partner, she writes of “that ingredient vital for love, which can best be described, I think, as conspiracy” — my favourite line in the book) but the book is more concerned with words than the stories they tell. Mutch probes the connections between words and what they symbolize, as well as other connections for which words are a conduit.”
Another winter book I read around the same time was Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk. Nappaaluk had been asked to write down some Inuktitut phrases for a missionary to learn, but didn’t stop at simple grammar exercises and went on invent a whole cast of characters and create the first Inuit novel. “The narrative skirts omniscience in a way that seems curious to the reader who is accustomed to the English novel. There is a matter-of-factness to the telling, perhaps related to its origins—it was written in a shorthand that can be written as quickly as it is spoken, and so this written novel has an oral nature. There is also a simplicity to its delivery that only comes across as such because a whole layer of the narrative is inaccessible to me as a reader (and I think that this is the challenge for this reader that Martin was writing about in her review). Saladin d’Anglure’s foreword makes clear that the apparent simplicity of Nappaaluk’s novel is undermined by the Inuit symbols and stories referenced, as well as details of Nappaaluk’s own life and members of her community. In short, this is only a straightforward story because I’m not smart enough to know it isn’t otherwise.”
Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy Snow Bird was one of my vacation reads this summer, and I was enthralled by its twists and turns, and by how the British-born Oyeyemi channels American-ness in this novel. That it was based on a fairy tale might have had me supposing a certain shallowness to the narrative, but Oyeyemi drills down deep to show why an archetypal story like Snow White has such cultural resonance, and then introduces race as a theme to add a whole new layer of relevance. This novel was smart, sharp and gorgeous.
I also adored Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which I read in April. Late to the party (because it had already been internationally celebrated by then) I read it for own pleasure, and realized it deserved all the hype. At heart, this is a novel about quantum physics, which shouldn’t scare you off. It’s a weird, wonderful story about the whole wide world, which is as terrible as it is beautiful, and it’s brilliant how Ozeki manages to knit it all together.
I haven’t talked much here about Chez L’Arabe by Mireille Silcoff, which I read this fall, but I loved it and my review is forthcoming in Canadian Notes & Queries. From my review: One can read Silcoff’s collection as a catalogue of beautiful well-made objects…Which is not to say that the stories lack depth, that they skim along their lush or shiny surfaces, but instead the things themselves are invested with meaning, each one “permeated with some little, important, imported world of its own.” “Materialist” is hurled as a slur more than once but, as a character replies (she of the sugar sifter), “I don’t see why anything should be considered less meaningful just because it’s concrete.””
Deborah-Anne Tunney’s The View From the Lane was another recent read, but one I’ve not been able to shake off yet. It was a promising first book more than a perfect one, but a huge part of its promise is the atmosphere that Tunney creates. It reminded me of Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories in all the best ways. The night I finished this book, I stayed up late searching for the streets she writes about on Google Maps—I was left with such a sense of the place, and I wanted to see it for myself.
And finally, My Real Children by Jo Walton, a book I loved so very much and have given as a gift at least three times since I read it (and I replaced my ARC with a hardcover). Lots to say about this one—it connects interestingly with Lisa Bird-Wilson’s Just Pretending in its notion of real children (those we give birth to) as opposed to those who are miscarried or adopted and the “unrealness” that pervades these relationships through semantics. And with Ann-Marie MacDonald’s book, which also explores queer relationships and parallel lives. I reread this book for my book club and realized that while Walton’s strength is not as a prose stylist—there are a few lines in the book that are a bit painful to encounter—she has performed something remarkable in her creation of Patricia Cowan and her lives, so much so that this book reminded be of Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald biography (Fitzgerald and Walton’s Patricia are near contemporaries). I’m going to be returning to this book again and again for the enthralling nature of its story, for its genre blurring and alternate histories, and for what Walton has to say about the shape and the details of an ordinary woman’s life.
December 13, 2014
I finished reading Housekeeping last night, past midnight even. And I’m left with more than a few impressions. The first a bit incidental, but we started reading The Children of Green Knowe last night, so it seems there is water water everywhere (in books, at least). And as I continued through Housekeeping, marvelling at the ghosts and spectres, I thought of Shirley Jackson more and more, and so I was so pleased to find this piece about the connections between Housekeeping and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, of which there are many. I appreciate too the discussion of Housekeeping and genre, fantasy in particular. It is such an oddly situated book in terms of genre, which was my trouble with the novel in my first reading of it—it wasn’t at all what I’d expected. Its situating of the domestic is particularly peculiar, and I love the image of Sylvie opening the windows because she believes in the virtues of fresh air, and forgetting to close them for no good reason except that she forgets. I’m struck by the strange notions of housekeeping as an occupation in both Housekeeping and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. And this too—I am always less interested in a book whose characters are disconnected from society. For example, By the Shores of Silver Lake is my least favourite Little House book, and when the Ingalls finally moved to town in time for The Long Winter, I was so relieved. So as Sylvie and Ruth spun farther and farther away from Fingerbone, I found the story less compelling. I remain so intrigued by the town, the curious descriptions of its inhabitants, who remain so unclear to me, probably because of how the descriptions were filtered through Ruth’s strange perspective. And her perspective was really so strange in a way that the reader doesn’t entirely realize, because Ruth herself rarely refers to herself singularly—she is always part of a “we” collection, which lends credence to her point of view. She is persuasive, explaining matters and circumstances in a way that seems logical, is always measured, until we examine her ideas properly and determine they don’t make so much sense at all. While remarkably different in nearly every respect, she reminded me a little bit of Nora Eldridge from Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs in this respect. The power of the first person narrator, our propensity to trust the voice speaking directly into one’s ear.
Anyway, Housekeeping truly is a masterpiece, a baffling, strange and beautiful one. So glad I read it again.
Next: moving onward to Gilead, which I’m nervous about. Not being altogether familiar with the Bible, beyond Sunday School lessons, I’ve always been inclined to think I’m not quite its ideal reader.
December 11, 2014
“And then I knew, Tom, that the garden was changing all the time, because nothing stands still, except in our memory.” –from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, which we just finished reading tonight
Alfie never gets older. We’ve been reading his books since Harriet was baby, and I love them impossibly. Their stories are as familiar to me as stories from my own family. I know the corners of their house so intimately—the teapots, and the toy teapots, and Flumbo the elephant, and Willesden the consolation prize, and I’ve speculated aplenty about Maureen McNally, whom I suspect is actually a cat-burgler. And speaking of cats, I know that Alfie’s is called Chessie, and I remember when he comforted his friend at Bernard’s birthday party, and how he likes to play This Little Piggie with his baby sister’s pink toes.
Stuart’s aunt gave Harriet and Iris a book voucher for Christmas, and I ordered them a copy of Alfie’s Christmas, which came out last year. And it arrived today and I opened it at once, because this is one Christmas present we’re going to enjoy before Christmas. It’s a lovely simple story of the countdown to Christmas in Alfie’s house, and all his preparations—his advent calendar, and drawings of stars, and songs at school, baking cookies and putting up the tree. Iris is drawn to the book for the cats in the pictures, and as we were reading the book, we’re realized that she’s probably the age of Annie-Rose, precisely (and she similarly gets into boatloads of mischief).
Harriet liked the book too, which I was relieved about, because I’ve been sensing lately that she feels a bit too old for Alfie and his tales. “Isn’t he in nursery school?” she asked me the other day at the library when I’d proposed taking out one of his books. As a Senior Kindergartener, I think she regards consorting with nursery schoolers, even in literature, as kind of insulting. But I think she still does like these books as much as I do—they really are our foundational texts. And the Christmas in this particular volume won her over, so she was totally game.
It makes me sad though to think that someday Alfie might really be outgrown. It’s inevitable, of course, but it’s also kind of lonely—this wonderful world I’ve discovered through her that we won’t get to share anymore.
I feel as though Aflie’s Christmas might be one that lasts though, having taken up residence in our Christmas book box. A book that will be pulled out again every year, a process whose very appeal is nostalgia. And one day we’ll be telling a wholly different version of Iris, pointing at Annie-Rose, “Once upon a time this was you.”
December 11, 2014
For no good reason, except that I want to, and I think it will be good for me, and I have a bit of space for a focussed reading project, which I’m so pleased about, because I feel as though my reading lately has been scattered and something of a mad scramble.
I first reading Housekeeping perhaps in 2006, and here’s my shameful confession: I didn’t like it. I had been expecting something light and straightforward from the novel, which was not at all what it delivered. I was also not as smart a reader then as I am now (and it is my hope hope that I can continue to say this about every decade that passes in my reading life.) When I read Home in 2008, I was much more appreciative, though I don’t remember anything of the book now. Plus, I missed Gilead in the middle. I wonder now though how Robinson’s work changed between her first and third novel—is there a reason beyond my improved sensibility that had me like the latter book? And now the world has been imploring me to read her latest book, Lila, which reviews have noted as having thematic connections to Housekeeping, a cyclical structure to all four novels. So this is why I’ve decided to go back to the beginning.
I’m about halfway through Housekeeping now, and so pleased with what I’ve embarked upon. The book is unbelievably strange and really quite difficult—sentences that require much concentration to make sense of (though following their twists is such a pleasure). Part of the problem is the complex sentences used to described really odd images—that strange house with its sloped floors. I can’t visualize the trapdoor at the top of the stairs no matter how hard I try. Perhaps another trick of the book is that its difficulties are subtle, just under the surface. They’re a little bit like traps. It’s so Biblical too, but in a contemporary setting, without male characters—we’re not accustomed to this.
But what pleasures we reap from careful reading. Really beautiful, inside-out sentences that reframe the familiar in surprising ways. I loved, “And then the library was flooded to a depth of three shelves, creating vast gaps in the Dewey decimal system.” And that image of the sodden curtains’ weight bending the curtain rod. There is something slightly Shirley Jackson-ish about this household, which reminded me of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. No one there is quite right, but the terms of the characters’ difference is never quite clear. An anxiety underlying everything that is never really explained—the reader intuits. And I am impressed by the fleeting descriptions of motherhood: “She had always known a thousand ways to circle them all around with what must have seemed like grace.”
And oh, sentences like, “There would a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplace spectacles, of neighbours and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole.” You could think on that one over and over again.”
I came across a passage when I was reading last night:
Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasure in the world but brown leaves, as if it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown apple leaves, and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on.
And it seemed so familiar; I was sure I’d read its echo recently. And finally I realized where it was from:
The dead live on in the homeliest of ways. They’re listed in the phone book, They get mail. Their wigs rest of styrofoam heads at the back of closets. Their beds are made. Their shoes are everywhere.
Which is altogether different, but not altogether altogether—I mean, those shoes? It’s from Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck and Other Stories, which Housekeeping recalls to me in more than a few places.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to Chapter Six.
December 10, 2014
Teaching The Art of Blogging at UofT’s School of Continuing Studies this fall was an incredibly inspiring, enjoyable, and educational experience. I was pleased to be teaching the course again after a hiatus, and to be changing my approach based upon the blogging workshops I’d done over the past two years. Our class turned out to be a group of wonderful, generous and intelligent writers whose approaches and backgrounds were so diverse and complementary. Our class readings ranged from blog posts on tech by Mathew Ingram and Navneet Alang, to a Rebecca Solnit essay, posts by Bonnie Stewart, Kyran Pittman, and Shawna Lemay, and my own blog post of preservation and the work of Mary Pratt. I was also tremendously inspired by having just read May Friedman’s book on Mommyblogs, which really gave me the confidence to follow my own instincts about what blogging is and can be, and to celebrate the form as Friedman approaches it: “It is precisely because it is impossible to say anything generalizable about the mamasphere as a whole that it is a radical maternal space; not as a result of the activism of individual mothers, but because of the implications of all these narratives coexisting, and the endless unspooling dialogue that therefore emerges.”
And now with the course completed, I am really pleased to share with you some of the blogs that have emerged from it. I hope you will add them to your bookmarks.
- Check out gem city, a literary blog with a singular point of view, a wonderful and wondrous take on books and reading, and such haunting kazoo solos like you won’t believe. I’m excited that this excellent writer has recently settled in Toronto and look forward to seeing where her blog takes her to.
- Peas and Honey is the most curious hybrid, about aging parents and old houses, grief and memory, and full of really good story telling, and the most surprising connections, which is what the best blogs do.
- a dainty dish is a blog that owns my heart already, a baking blog whose recipes are inspired by beautiful picture books by writers (so far) including Sara O’Leary, Julie Morstad, Cybele Young, and Jon Klassen. It’s so gorgeous and original, and I’m finding that I’m always hungry for her next post.
- For those of you who like to gaze upon beautiful things, here is Barbara Ishwerwood’s blog, whose short and perfect posts offer insight into art and art history. Check out the links to Barbara’s courses too!
- And you’ve never had a friend like Marina Hasson, whose own stories and experiences have powered her remarkable approach to life. She’s inspiring, lovely and hilarious, and there is such a generous spirit to everything she does. You can befriend her here—and lucky you!
The Art of Blogging will be offered next in September 2015.
December 9, 2014
The trouble with being a little bit odd is that my book recommendations are not always universal, and so it is useful when I encounter a book as odd as I am, to which I can point and say, “This book is not for everyone. BUT.” Say, if you are the type who can identify with a woman who finds an injured pigeon (while travelling on her canal boat, which she has converted into a financial under-performing bookshop) and then decides to uncover all references to pigeons in the Western canon, then The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw is definitely for you. It is definitely for me. My husband is a bit relieved that I’ve finally finished it, because for the past few days, I’ve been reading him passages from every other page, and while he conceded that they were indeed quite funny, he found the whole thing rather strange.
Last night in particular was the part in the book that was narrated from the perspective of the boat itself (oh yes—and its narration replicates Black Beauty, with which the boat [called Joseph] shares a colour) in which Henshaw comes home traumatized by having found “a discarded sanitary towel pressed between the pages of a reference book on cowboys… [S]he said that book vandalism was the devil’s own trade mark, and if we saw any one who took pleasure in leaving menstrual paraphernalia between pages, we might know to whom he belonged, for the devil was a murderer from the beginning and a tormentor to the end. On the other hand, where we saw people who loved their books and were kind to hardback and soft cover, we might know that was God’s mark; for ‘God loves books.'”
To be fair, that’s probably the oddest part of the book. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. But still….
The premise of this book initially put me in mind of Penelope Fitzgerald, with the offshore and the bookshop, and everything, and while Henshaw doesn’t reference Fitzgerald, The Bookshop That Floated Away still did not disappoint. It’s not really a book about a premise anyway, but instead very much of itself, about the curious incidents that transpire when the strange and insular worlds of books and canal boating connect. The latter is not always romantic—in Burnley, they have to navigate over a sofa, and then she fears a human head has become stuck on her propeller. And then there are the locks, so many locks, mostly manual, which is no small business when you are a solo journeyer and your boat is sixty feet long. It’s a different kind of off-roading, which results in travel book that reminded me of Beryl Bainbridge’s English Journey, if Bainbridge had been travelling by canal boat and had a propensity for hosting book clubs on her boat and imbibing far too much wine.
Henshaw’s journey comes about when her plans for opening a bookshop on a barge aren’t as lucrative as she’d supposed, the problem perhaps exacerbated by a conspicuous lack of business savvy—her one qualification for the gig is a voracious appetite for books, and the ability to see the whole world through a bookish prism. So she decides to go on a six month journey from the Midlands to London, then to Bristol, back through the Midlands to Leeds and Manchester, and then home, bartering books for Victorian sponge cake and spreading the word about the importance of independent bookshops.
On the way, she has good days and catastrophes, the boat indeed floats away, people vomit on its astroturf roof, she finds three injured pigeons, the boat is stolen, vandalized, the Mayor of Bath calls Joseph a “she”, and they are banned in Bristol. She tells her own story, and is so deft with allusion that she successfully navigates a Heart of Darkness meets Scuffy the Tugboat set-up. The narrative is further powered by other references to boatish and adventure books—Treasure Island, and The Wind and the Willows, plus Anna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dick Whittington and His Cat, Our Mutual Friend, but not The Complete Guide to Starting and Running a Bookshop, because Henshaw couldn’t get into it.
The book is crazy wonderful, if you’re a certain kind of reader, though I suspect that if you’re reading this, you might well be. I discovered The Book Barge (which is misnamed, Henshaw tells us, and is actually a narrow boat, the discrepancy causing much consternation among boating purists) from The Bookshop Book, and was pleased to find out (spoilers!) that Henshaw decided not to jump ship at the end of her journey, determining that there was indeed nothing else worth doing as messing about in boats, as both Mole and Rat will attest.
- Discover The Book Barge online.
- learn more about The Book Barge
- PS In an ironic twist of fate, The Bookshop That Floated Away is not available outside the UK (or not here at least), so I was unable to order it through my local independent bookshop, and had to get it through The Book Depository instead. But I am so glad I did…