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June 24, 2008

The world is more wonderful

“The world is more wonderful than any of us have dared to guess, as all great poets have been telling us since the invention of poetry. To discover these truths, we don’t need to scale Mount Everest or white-water raft the Colorado or take up skydiving. We need only to go for walks.” –Sharon Butala, The Perfection of the Morning

June 24, 2008

Fun with Ichigo

For the second year in a row I’ve found my bookish pursuits in line with the season. It was almost a year ago that I first read Animal Vegetable Miracle, and I’m now reading The Perfection of the Morning, having finished the mesmerizing Prodigal Summer just before it. Both books inspiring a yearning to get closer to the earth, and so I did when any earth loving city dweller does for such a connection in the month of June–I ventured out past the suburbs.

Around our house June is one of the best times, full to bursting with fun and fetes, the sunshine and the solstice, and then the strawberries. I don’t have faith in a lot of things, but the very fact that delight manages to grow itself on trees (or at least bushes) suggests to me the world’s inherent goodness. The amazing abundance of summer time and sweet things, and all of this is well celebrated with a trip to the strawberry patch.

I went on Saturday with our friends Carolyn and Steve, and proceed to pick far too much out of fear of not enough. It was a gorgeous afternoon, well-spent toiling in the fields in suburban fashion. Ten litres I picked, an entire bucket and more, and I also acquired some new freckles and aches in my old lady knees.

Afterwards we came back to my house and the toiling continued (for a woman’s work is never done, moan moan, but of course, as usual, I did my suffering in silence). Carolyn and I made batches and batches of jam (albeit freezer jam, as our preserving ambitions still have some way to go). We used an obscene amount of sugar, and then ran out of sugar and had to go buy some more.

Soon the fridge was full of jammy delights the kitchen resembling a strawberry explosion. Dripping down the cupboard doors, staining counter tops, a couple of grubby finger prints up and down the telephone. Piles and piles of dirty dishes and utensils, and then, for fear of not having dirtied absolutely everything (and because it is one of my favourite things to do), I baked two strawberry pies. One for eating that evening (and it was delicious), the other put away in the freezer for a while. I intend to do as much with every fresh fruit appearing all summer long, and then come winter have a defrostable treasure trove of summer fruit goodness.

June 22, 2008

Summer Rereading Project

As usual, I’ll be rereading plenty during July and August, and I’ve written more about that project over at the Descant blog.

June 20, 2008

Rendering Magic

We celebrated our third anniversary so marvelously, rendering a Wednesday evening perfectly magical. I especially liked getting to say at work that I was leaving a few minutes early that evening because I had a boat to catch. A ferry to the Island, which– both for its very self and as an easy retreat from the city– is one of my favourite parts of Toronto.

We had dinner at The Rectory Cafe on Wards Island. The weather was terrible so we didn’t sit outside, but from our table by the window we watched the water and the sailboats. Indulging in some splendid food which we partook in slowly, intending to linger until the ferry at 8:45. The meals were delicious, the wine perhaps the best we’ve ever had, and then dessert of course. I had a pot of tea called Benghal tiger. The restaurant was lovely and airy, the service fine, and being indoors didn’t spoil the mood. Really nothing could have been more delightful. And then to sail off into the sunset towards home– a happy anniversary indeed.

June 19, 2008

On "Show, Don't Tell"

“I think, frankly, it’s a bit like behaviorism or something. I really wonder how much of it carries over from science, I mean really crude science as understood in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century– that there’s something illusory about thought and that in fact it’s behaviour that counts, and only behavior, when in fact people’s brains are buzzing all the time. People are to an incredible degree constituted of what they never say, perhaps never consciously think. Behaviour is conventionalized and circumstantial. In many cases, the behaviour that in fact would express what someone thinks or feels is frustrated, cannot occur. Here we are, basically organized to carry this big brain around, and it’s absolutely bizarre to act as if what goes on there is not part of the story.” –Marilynne Robinson, The Believe Book of Writers Talking to Writers

June 18, 2008

A Happy Anniversary

We got married three years ago, far across the sea and on a gorgeous sunny day. Upon which I thought I knew the very heights of love…

but what a thrill now to know that the climb was just beginning.

Happy days to a man of infinite wisdom, patience, support, love and fun. It is inexplicably lucky that I get to be your wife. Here’s to a good year, and then some more.

June 18, 2008

Books at Bedtime

I love England. They’re all in a furor over something called “Books at Bedtime”. (Can you imagine getting worked up over something called that? It would be like throwing eggs at the Teddy Bear’s picnic.) Listeners are upset about a radio broadcast of Barbara Gowdy’s Helpless, because the broadcast gave some of them nightmares. ‘”Helpless is inappropriate for any time of day, least of all at bedtime,” said Helen Thompson. “The subject is tasteless and given the society in which we live totally inappropriate.”‘ Apparently the BBC has been inundated with complaints about this, most on the basis that the broadcast was “frightening”. Though perhaps they just read the book in a really spooky voice? And can we complain whenever anything is frightening now? Further, how on earth do these people know who to call? I wonder if they’ve got a number on speed-dial.

June 17, 2008

A False Inheritance

I was glad to read “Looking Backward: The 2007 Scotiabank Giller Prize”, whose link-to lit-blogs had been spitting out wildly about two weeks ago. It’s an essay, I think, that is ill-represented by sensational snip-snippy pull-quotes which read as idle bitching. “I don’t see where’s there’s any room for debating the fact that M.G. Vassanji can’t write,” is one example, and in fact even when this quote isn’t standing alone, I’m not sure Good’s examples substantiate it. Whenever a critic tries to pinpoint badness by tossing out random paragraph, I am rarely convinced. I don’t know much about aesthetics (“quite obviously,” you might be saying), but they sometimes seem as arbitrary as taste.

Like everything in Canadian Notes and Queries, however, the article broadened my perspective. My perspective going into it being this: I don’t like books being slagged off, particularly for their popularity (as what exactly are we masses supposed to be reading? and if we were reading something different, you wouldn’t get to feel so smug). I also thought that Late Nights on Air was magical, the best book I read last year (and I read a lot of books last year). I didn’t read Effigy or The Assassin’s Song from the Giller list, because I knew I wouldn’t like either of them, and I don’t understand why readers who probably had the same instincts went ahead and read them anyway. Prize lists aren’t required reading. I couldn’t think of a more boring kind of martyrdom.

I am also bothered by the Can-Lit criticism that takes down books for being either exactly what they are, or what they aren’t. Particularly when this criticism takes such a limited view of Canadian Literature in order to prove itself, for example the complaint that Can-Lit doesn’t do urban, when 16 out of the 20 Canadian novels I’ve read this year take place in cities and towns. I realize I’m just a small sample, but perhaps it proves that Can-Lit isn’t just any one thing, which I think is sort of wonderful. I have also noticed that this brutal criticism is a kind of brutish criticism, and that aesthetic arguments are turned up to render artless stories women tell.

Finally, I was reading this article at the same time I was reading Sharon Butala’s story collection Fever, which is all the things Can-Lit is supposed to have outgrown– about farmers and farms, about the prairies, so backwards-looking that history is perpetually present or on the verge of such a thing. It’s an amazing collection, which was even more apparent as I read it a second time, and I didn’t see where there was any room for debating that fact. That Sharon Butala is an incredible writer, that she writes about the place where she lives, and where lots of people live, and that our “inherited tropes” are still our stories, because so much never changes and it’s never going to change, regardless of whether we’re deconstructing our fiction or not. That we write about our geography because it’s still important, and history isn’t irrelevant yet, and I don’t think it’s even finished.

I swallowed my petty defensiveness, however, enough to properly come to understood Alex Good’s point of view here– the writers who get praised without even trying, and I get it. I was baffled by Divisidero, and I gave it much more credit than I might have if it had been first time novel (I’ll be rereading it this summer, and look forward to finding out if I see it any clearer). That the dominance of the big presses doesn’t make a lot of sense, nor does it represent the quality Can-Lit that is available (and I see that now, particularly as I’ve read such great books by small presses this year). The limitations of the judges also– their backgrounds, their own connections. That perhaps the Gillers don’t reward the very best of Can-Lit, but I wonder if the complaint isn’t rather than choices are too mainstream. But I don’t know if the Gillers were ever supposed to be cutting edge. Also my favourite book from last year won, but then maybe that’s just me (though it’s not. An awful lot of people loved Late Nights on Air…)

Good’s most salient point, however– what he calls “the Giller’s most pernicious effect” is that that “the Giller presents an influential vision of what serious Canadian Literature should be.” And I see that now, that the problem isn’t this shortlist, but rather a lack of authenticity that is contagious. That we set out to write a Canadian fiction, and so we stick in the prairie, the combine harvester, crop failure and a dissatisfied wife. So that our fiction is put-on rather than organic, that we rely on the same tropes, those “inherited tropes” but the problem is writers who haven’t even inherited them. It would be different if they had inherited them– Sharon Butala has, and her fiction rings true and timeless, it does– but these writers are just trying them on for size. Which is different, and fake and false and boring. Writers not listening to their own voices, telling their own stories, but rather writing within such fixed parameters of what Good Literature is supposed to be. A problem perpetuated by the celebration of the same kinds of work time and time again.

It’s an important distinction, what is inherited and otherwise (though I realize it reads as arbitrary too), and upon it the argument swung round for me. I’m not sure Alex Good meant it to, or if he even meant the distinction at all, but the resulting synthesis seems infinitely sensible.

June 17, 2008

The whole thing

We went to Ottawa this weekend, which was brilliant all around (cousins, markets, barbeques), but I was particularly appreciative of a good ten hours spent train journeying, which of course makes for good reading. I did Fever and Prodigal Summer, and also CNQ. This is my second issue of the magazine– I raved about Issue 72 back in December. This issue lived right on up to my heightened expections: so much learning in one package seems a miracle. So much to challenge me, whether to understand, to be enlightened, or even to disagree. If you’ve got an interest in Canadian literary matters and you’re not reading CNQ, you’re missing out on something extraordinary. Serves as an example of what a magazine can truly be. It sounds like I’m overstating, but I’m really not. Robyn Sarah’s “Delivered to Chance” and David A. Kent on Margaret Avison were my favourite bits, but really (shhh…) I liked the whole thing.

June 17, 2008

Moth Love

How strange are bookish connections, aren’t they? Of course, when I was reading Sharon Butala’s Fever last week, I could sense how it would relate to Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, which was coming up next. Similar themes of nature, landscape, agriculture, small towns, and the weather. I am two thirds through Prodigal Summer now, and on my knees to Kingsolver, who everybody else already knew was extraordinary, but it just took me awhile to find out. How wonderful to be reading this novel now, with the world around me so blooming, tonight out on my back deck with a cup of tea, and the trees all around, and the birdsong. I disappeared into my head, and into Kingsolver’s amazing imagination.

Anyway, the unexpected connection being the next book I’ve got to read, which is The Sister by Poppy Adams. I’ve got an advanced reader’s copy which betrays nothing of its content, and so was I ever surprised to see that it’s UK title is The Behaviour of Moths. But I would have picked up that title without delay (precedent for good things with moths in their title includes The Peppered Moth and “The Death of the Moth”)! I discover now it’s about an entomologist– and I’ve been obsessed with entomology lit ever since I read “Miss Ormerod” by Virginia Woolf. Anyway, I am excited. Particularly as a third of Prodigal Summer is entitled “Moth Love”, and so I am very excited to see how else these books link up. And then after we celebrate the world some more with Butala’s The Perfection of the Morning.

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