April 14, 2014
I am so pleased to have my essay, “Rereading Fear of Flying: On Not Being Pregnant in Mid-Air With Isadora Wing,” featured on The Toronto Review of Books today. It’s sort of a companion to my piece in The M Word, so the timing is particularly nice.
April 13, 2014
I first read Doretta Lau in The Journey Prize Stories with the story from which her first collection takes its title. “How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?” is the story of a group of Chinese-Canadian young people growing up in Vancouver who repurpose racist language and stereotypes for their own devices. It was so smart, daring and surprising, but most of all funny, and I’ve been looking forward to this collection ever since. Revisiting that story underlined my first impression, and I was once again stirred by its powerful conclusion in which the friends raucously paint over a mural depicting colonial scenes, ending up with an expanse of empty beige wall. And it’s as though in her stories, Lau picks up where the vandals left off, portraying the experiences of Asian-Canadians in her story but not in the ways in which we’re familiar with seeing them depicted in Canadian literature–heroic immigrant tales, family sagas.
For there is nothing familiar about Lau’s approach in her best stories, her reader dazzled by the possibilities of her fictional worlds in which the usual rules don’t apply. The rules of language, for one, as in “How does a single blade of grass…?”, and then the rules of physics in “God Damn, How Real Is This?”, in which people begin receiving text messages from their future selves, which sends the order of the world into chaos, or “Two Part Invention,” whose main character’s determination to start dating dead men leads to a relationship with Glenn Gould.
A few of the other stories, usually about lovelorn characters without purpose who live alone in apartments, blurred together a bit, lacking the focus and definition of the strongest stories in the book. But ultimately, this slim collection is impressive, marking the exciting debut of an original voice.
I wasn’t sure I would love Grayling, a novella by poet Gillian Wigmore. It takes place over the course of a canoe trip through Northwestern BC, has just two characters—none of the people and concrete I like best in my books. And yet, from the first sentence I was hooked, Wigmore’s remarkable prose creating an incredible momentum that parallels her character Jay’s journey on the Dease River. On the run after a health crisis, Jay is paddling to get anywhere, rather than to somewhere specific, but he is interrupted in his personal quest by a girl he meets en-route who sweet talks her way into his boat. The two characters’ personalities are often at odds, their company in so remote a place creating a curious intimacy between them. And we get to know them by what they choose to tell one another, knowing them even better too by their mysteries, by what they choose to withhold. The stories they exchange, their questions without answers, serve to add layers of meaning to the immediate action portrayed in the book and cast a kind of spell.
Wigmore’s writing is incredibly sensual, her prose vivid with bodies and their feelings (and their food!). The connection between the two characters is so rich and complex, resisting cliches and ever fresh, and so too is her story, which would earn a place in my hypothetical “Death By Landscape” anthology, even though no one dies exactly, because that too would be too easy, but instead her ending is mysterious and shocking, unsettling and swift.
Grayling was a runner-up for the 1st Search for the Great BC Novel contest, and one can certainly see how it stuck out in the crowd. For a debut novel, this one is remarkably assured, and here’s hoping that the multi-talented Wigmore has more fiction in store for us.
April 13, 2014
My reading life has belonged to me lately, after a very busy few months during which I was lucky enough to be reviewing one book after another. Even luckier—the books I’ve reviewed this spring were all really good. (My review of Miriam Toews’ wonderful, heartbreaking, hilarious All My Puny Sorrows will be out in Canadian Notes & Queries in the distant future.) But now I’ve got nearly all my deadlines out of the way, and I’m free to read whatever I choose. Whatever I choose from the 50+ books waiting for me on my t0-be-read shelf, not to mention the books I keep finding on the curb and bringing home (’tis the season!) and the books I’m buying too (my copy of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Collected Letters finally arrived last week at the Bob Miller Book Room!). I’m reading lots of new books for review here on my blog, and also older books for my interest only. If the number of books I have before me are any indication of my lifespan, I am probably going to live forever.
In spite of all this, when I read Sarah’s blog post the other day about Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, my immediate response was, “I’ve got to have this.” And not just for one of these days, but for right now, this moment. I’ve loved Wallace Stegner’s books, which were introduced to me by Julia, who has delivered me to so many wonderful things. She gave me his All the Little Live Things, which I liked much more than his Pulitzer-winning Angle of Repose, and Crossing to Safety seemed similar in approach to the former.
It’s a writerly book, one that puts a writer at its centre and continually draws attention to itself as something written: “How,” asks the writer-narrator Larry Morgan, “do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect?” It’s a strategy that might have failed in lesser hands. But with Wallace Stegner it feels hard-earned and true. He was 78 when Crossing to Safety came out in 1987. It was his last novel. His first novel was published in 1937. The wisdom and sensibility of Larry Morgan is hard not to conflate with Stegner himself. Aging, and often looking back on days long past, Larry is able to take the long-view of the lives of the two couples, with all their ups and downs: “If we could have forseen the future during those good days in Madison where this all began, we might not have had the nerve to venture into it.” I sometimes wonder how any of us has the nerve to go on, when we know that, at any moment, we stand to lose those we love or the life we know. In fact, losing those we love and losing, at least to some extent, our youthful vigor are inevitable corollaries of a living a long life oneself.
I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot lately, where that nerve to live at all comes from, and the way I live always a little bit terrified of reality coming along to snuff out my illusion that it’s all still basically worthwhile. (I think it is. I don’t ever not want to think so. Hence the terror.)
I also enjoyed Sarah’s story about how the book came into her life, got recalled to the library, how she ordered a copy online, found another in the Oxfam bookshop and had to buy that one, only to have the first book in the postbox upon arrival back home. So now she has two, and I wanted one too, so we ventured out yesterday afternoon to see if Seekers Books had one in stock and they did! I started reading last night and less than 24 hours later, I’m more than halfway through, absolutely adoring it. So happy to be reading it, besotted with its beautiful cover, a window. How perfect. We had an absolutely terrible night’s sleep last night with two coughing children, and so I was left alone to linger in bed this morning until 9:15 when I was delivered Iris for her morning nap, and there I was reading more until 11am when she woke up. I’ve not stayed so long in bed in years, and it was wonderful, and this book was the perfect accompaniment exactly.
April 11, 2014
Well, that was me sobbing in the kitchen today as I read Rachel Harry’s review of The M Word in The National Post. Sobbing. Who knew that happened? She writes, “The M Word is a meditation on the fickle emotional uncertainty awarded to mothers. It breaks down the walls of maternal isolation and offers companionship to anyone who has not had the fairy-tale journey to motherhood. These stories show us that the extraordinary gift of motherhood cannot be accepted without relinquishing something spectacular.” How amazing and wonderful that she gets the book so entirely. That there is sadness, yes, and hardship and yet: “stories of the searing joy found within the wholeness of a mother’s devotion.” The multitudinousness is the very point, and so’s the joy. I am thrilled, overwhelmed and incredibly proud of both this project and also the incredible women whose talents made this idea a reality.
April 10, 2014
I can’t think of many books I loved when I was 8 that I still love now but only 500 times more. The first time I read an Adrian Mole book, I was too young for it, and couldn’t figure out what he was talking about when he was measuring his “thing” and I had a few curious ideas what “spots” were. See, it wasn’t just that I was young, but that the books were foreign, and I didn’t know who Noddy was so really didn’t understand about his wallpaper. Like many young protagonists I read when I was even younger than they were (hello, Holden Caulfield!) I took Adrian at face value and so it took me awhile to realize that Lo The Flat Hills of My Homeland probably wasn’t a very good book. But it didn’t matter, because by the time I figured it out, I loved Adrian Mole, following all his adventures right up until The Weapons of Mass Destruction, which came out in 2004 and which everybody at my workplace in Japan passed around until the book was in tatters.
Adrian Mole was integral in my love affair with England, which was long-lasting and huge with life-changing consequences. I am sure that it is from Adrian Mole that I first heard of bunting (strung up during the Royal Wedding in 1981) though I didn’t know what that was either. I can trace my obsession with commemorative tea-towels back to the Charles and Diana one that Adrian Mole’s dad hung on the front door in lieu of proper festivities. I moved to the Midlands in 2002 because I knew of it from Adrian Mole and I thought it was kind of funny (and plus I had no money so couldn’t afford to live in London). And there I met my husband, whom I dragged to Skegness because Adrian Mole had gone to Skegness and I thought that was funny too (and it was! Stuart hadn’t believed me. English people don’t have as much fun doing ironic Adrian Mole lower-class things as you or I do, but they are totally missing out). I still tease Stuart on a regular basis about his Adrian Mole-ish 1980s Margaret Thatcher childhood. He’s since told me who Noddy is.
Oh, Pandora Braithwaite (who became an MP!). It is from Adrian Mole that I first heard the name Germaine Greer. I love that his mother became a radical feminist, and also that she regretted not naming Adrian “Brett”. Bert Baxter and his Woodbines and beetroot sandwiches and his Alsatian, Sabre. In later years, Adrian would impregnate a woman called Sharon Bott. How bully Barry Kent became a poetry sensation. And Nigel, who started a gay club at school, and Adrian was worried because now everybody would think Nigel was gay. Mr. Lucas next door, and Mrs. O’Leary (who gave a glimpse of her knickers while stringing bunting, if I remember correctly), and Mr and Mrs. Singh and all the little Singhs, and Big and Bouncy and Malcolm Muggeridge. Adrian Mole was so totally subversive, probably the naughtiest books in my school library. I am so glad that nobody ever noticed.
I love Sue Townsend. I read her other novels too, Rebuilding Coventry and Ghost Children, plus The Queen and I, which was terribly funny. I am quite sure I will reread Adrian Mole for the rest of my life, and they will never cease to make me laugh out loud. And so I was sad today to learn that she’d died at just 68. It’s a real loss that feels personal to me.
April 10, 2014
Forgive the relative silence here this week, but I am sick, Harriet has both learned to read and gone slightly insane, plus Iris just climbed an entire flight of stairs. And Playschool meeting/events in the evening 2 nights, and a trip to the dentist en famille. It’s been a busy week, but it’s got nothing on next week when it all starts kicking off. Which I am going to enjoy, every second of it. I am as determined of this as I am terrified of the whole scenario. Which is saying something.
On Monday April 14, The M Word is part of Indie Lit Night at the Starlight Social Club in Waterloo Ontario. Representing our book is the excellent Carrie Snyder, along with Jonathan Bennett, Tamai Kobayashi, Evan Munday, Sina Queyras, Nicholas Ruddock, Vivek Shraya, and Suzannah Showler. 7:30pm
On Tuesday April 15, we launch in Toronto at Ben McNally Books. I will be there, along with a whole bunch of Toronto contributors (and even one coming all the way from Cape Breton!). 6-8pm. There’s going to be cake.
On Wednesday April 16, Iris, my mom and I are taking the train to Kingston for a launch at Novel Idea Bookstore. I’m so excited about this event, which I’ll be participating in along with Susan Olding, Sarah Tsiang and Nancy Jo Cullen. 7:30pm.
On April 29, Maria Meindl and I will be taking part in the Different Drummer Books Book & Author Series in Burlington ON at the Burlington Golf and Country Club. 9:30 am.
The M Word goes west on Sunday May 3 for an event at Shelf Life Books in Calgary. Susan Olding, Fiona Tinwei Lam and Myrl Coulter will be reading, along with Judy McFarlane, author of Writing With Grace. 3pm. I won’t be there, but my sister will be, along with my baby nephew!!
I will be in Winnipeg on Tuesday May 6, where I will be reading at McNally Robinson with Kerry Ryan and Ariel Gordon, and I’m so excited about this. 7pm. There are rumours of cookies.
And then on Wednesday May 7, I’m heading to Hamilton with Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, Julie Booker, Maria Meindl to read at Bryan Prince Booksellers. 7pm.
Westward again for our event in Victoria BC at Russell Books on May 8 with Fiona Tinwei Lam and Marita Dachsel.
On Thursday May 15, I‘ll be at Another Story Book Shop on Roncesvalles Avenue in Toronto talking about motherhood and feminism with Melinda Vandenbeld Giles, editor of new book Mothering in the Age of Neoliberalism and Jasjit Sangha, editor of new book South Asian Mothering.
And on June 19, we’re doing a fun event at Parent Books in Toronto called Conversations About Mothers in Children’s Books. M Word contributors Heather Birrell, Heidi Reimer, Patricia Storms, and Amy Lavender Harris will be talking about themes from the anthology and how they relate to depictions of mothers from our favourite children’s books. 7pm
I’ll add more events to this page as they’re scheduled! And would also like to voice my gratitude to the fine bookshops across the country for hosting us. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: where would we be without you?
April 8, 2014
If you check out the 49thShelf blog regularly, none of this will be news to you, but if not, you’ll probably want to know about what’s been going down there lately because it’s good. March marked 3 years since I started out on the site as editor, and I commemorated the occasion with this amazing retrospective of my favourite posts from way back. Yesterday, we featured a wonderful excerpt from Katherine Govier’s new Mother Goose book, a reflection on the nursery rhymes she’s known all her life and read with her mother. (I will be writing about the book here very soon!). The excellent Ms. Kiley Turner has been putting together The Recommend Series this past while, and it’s full of great books and reasons to read them.
I wrote a post about memorable houses from CanLit. For International Women’s Day, I interviewed Rosemary McCarney, CEO of Plan Canada and author of new book, Every Day is Malala Day. And other cool interviews include one with author/librarian Ken Setterington for Freedom to Read Week about how censorship is complicated, and another with Nick Cutter, who may or may not be Craig Davidson, and who is author of the totally disgusting, excellent novel The Troop.
April 6, 2014
Jo Walton’s previous novel, Among Others, was one of my favourite books of 2012 and won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, which you can’t say about most books that are my favourite books of any year. I appreciate that because of Jo Walton, for me “the Hugo and the Nebula Awards” are now words that flow from my fingers like “Giller” or “Booker” do. Having made her start with fantasy in 2002, Walton’s writing moved in a science fiction direction with her alternate history “Small Change” series (which I can’t wait to read soon), and then proceeded to be altogether genre-busting with Among Others, which, in its unabashed bookishness, was embraced by passionate readers of all stripes. And now she has produced another such genre-busting book with My Real Children, the story of a woman with memory problems who can swear she’s lived two lives.
At first glance, the story recalls the movie Sliding Doors (Gwyneth and a fictional uncoupling, or not–remember?), or Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World—stories about the possibility of two destinies hinging on a single moment. But it also brings to mind Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, the twentieth century told through the experience of a character who gets to live it more than once. But where Walton’s take is particularly compelling and original, as it was with Among Others, is the way her fantastical elements exist in a so-solid reality, leaving it up to the reader to decide where the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur, if it exists at all.
Patricia Cowan is confused, we are told, and some days she’s even “Very Confused”, as the nurses document in their notes on a clipboard at the end of her bed. Is it simply her dementia, or can she remember two lives? Her different children come to visit, there are subtle differences between two care homes where apparently she resides, her different memories. Could this be possible? Is it just senility? Which conclusion is more plausible? And it’s a testament to the spell Walton casts that these questions don’t even matter. To Cowan herself, they certainly don’t.
The “sliding door” moment, that instant in which Patricia Cowan’s life cleaved in two, takes place in 1949 when she agrees to marry Mark. And also when she doesn’t. Up until this point, she’d been swept along in time, losing her brother in WW2, receiving a place at Oxford (because all the men were away, she says, explaining away her success with the tide). She does well at school, finds a teaching job. But Mark’s less-than-romantic proposal is the definitive moment in which she becomes an agent in her fate. When she says, “Yes,” she finds herself “Tricia”, in a loveless marriage, wed to a tyrant who keeps her powerless and miserable. Saying, “No,” results in Pat, some temporary heartbreak, but then fulfilment found in travel, a writing career, a life partnership with a biologist called Bee.
So which are her real children, Patricia Cowan wonders? The four children she had with Mark? With the son who became a rock star and died young of AIDS? Or the three children she had with Bee, two her biological children and all three fathered by the photographer, Michael? And as the reader is taken through the chronology of these family lives, it becomes clear that Patricia Cowan’s lives took place against political backdrops as different as their domestic ones. As we suspect all along and is confirmed in the book’s final chapter, it’s a butterfly-flapping-its-wings scenario. Is it that Tricia, with a life otherwise devoid of purpose and therefore with time to devote to campaigning for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, is key to the eventual obliteration of such weapons? Whereas Pat lives in a world where nuclear weapons are used more than once, radiation seeping through the atmosphere to disastrous consequences decades later. The Soviets land on the moon. LBJ is implicated in the death of President Kennedy. IRA bombings, Cuban missiles, nuclear exchanges between India and Pakistan, gay marriage made legal in the 1980s, mandatory identity cards, Google in the 1990s, US and Russia aligned against Europe, or American returned to its pre-WW2 isolationist stance. The possibilities are fascinating, how one thing just leads to another. Like a book. Life a life.
As I read this book, I thought less of Kate Atkinson and Sliding Doors and more of Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald biography, which I read in December. Not because Walton and Fitzgerald are anything alike in terms of style, but rather that Fitzgerald and Patricia Cowan are near contemporaries with similar experiences–plans and legacies interrupted by wartime, coming of age in an era overseen by a new establishment, Oxbridge educations that culminate in disappointing marriages and women (in the case of Tricia/Trish) who discover their true capabilities later in life. I suppose it says something about Walton’s skill that her novel calls to mind a Hermione Lee biography, that Patricia Cowan’s two lives seem so convincingly lived.
As the bookish Walton undoubtedly knows, one book always leads to another. I mean, she clearly knows this sort of thing because she’s referenced Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes and Margaret Drabble before you even hit page 16. Eventually, as the end of the book drew nearer (and oh, when it finally happened, I was gutted. I might have wished Patricia Cowan had life after life so that I could have gone on forever reading them…), I was thinking about Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, which similarly spans realistic historical periods to end up in a dystopian future. The atmosphere at the end of My Real Children is much the same, showing lives impacted by huge and sweeping histories but the details of these lives being the narratives that matter, the only constants in a history constructed of flux.