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April 17, 2018

1979 and That Time I Loved You

Ray Robertson’s new novel, 1979, is set in Robertson’s hometown, Chatham, ON, the story Tom Buzby, of a small town paperboy who once come back from the dead and now everybody thinks he must have some uncanny knowledge of the world and its workings. Which he does, actually, but in a more practical sense than assumed, the way he’s privy to glimpses of private lives, and wise to the cycles and seasons of the town and its residents. He’s not sure either why everybody thinks he’s got access to wisdom, but that’s because he takes his point of view for granted, his unique perspective on ordinary lives, and the fact that there is really no such thing.

Full disclosure: not a long happens in this book. Tom dies and comes back from the dead before the story starts, which is also when his mother, a former stripper turned religious zealot, runs off with the pastor, leaving her tattoo-artist husband to care of Tom and his older sister Julie. There’s a simmering tension involving Tom’s dad finally buying his own property, and the destruction of a local building to make way for a downtown mall, but otherwise it’s Tom on his paper-round, listening to his sister’s records, hanging out with his friends, thinking about his mother, checking out the books at Cole’s, and trying to impress an older girl by lying and telling her he’s read Fear of Flying. All of these characters are richly and sympathetically imagined, and realized.

It might be a two hour drive from Chatham to Wingham, but I still got an Alice Munro vibe from Robertson’s small town scenes, and this was underlined by the “newspaper stories” that are scattered through the novel. Imagined stories (‘Young Woman Finds Ontological Comfort in New Pair of Pants:’ “When I Look at Them, They Remind Me of Who I am”; ‘Man Grows Old and Cranky:’ “I Knew it Happened to Everyone, but Somehow I Thought in My Case There Might Be an Exception”; ‘Man Found Dead in Next-Door Neighbour’s Swimming Pool:’ “I didn’t Necessarily Want to Die, but I Didn’t Want to be Alive Either”) providing readers with access to the inner lives of the people who are secondary characters in Tom Buzby’s own tale, giving answers to questions that Tom does not yet have the age and experience to be asking—although he’s already haunted by a sense that they’re coming.

The book is rich with allusions to literature and music, and one reference specifically informs the project, the poetry collection Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters, which narrates the epitaphs of residents of a small town. Robertson’s take with the newspaper stories is similar in approach, and connects with Tom’s job (and downtown circuits) in a meaningful way. The result is beautifully crafted, a rich and textured perspective of small town life, a nostalgic journey that resonates with the world of today.

When I picked up Carrianne Leung’s new book next, That Time I Loved You, it was purely a coincidence, and I wasn’t expecting a connection. Until the first paragraph, of course: “1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves. I was eleven years old and in Grade  6. Elsewhere in world, big things were happening. McDonalds introduced the Happy Meal, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Michael Jackson released his album Off the Wall. But none of that was as significant to me as the suicides…”

These two books are excellent companions, perfect contenders for “If you like this, read…” pairings. Instead of small town Ontario and the past meeting the future, Leung is chronicling the suburbs and the possibility of escaping the past. The setting is Scarborough, where brand new houses with their leafy lawns on winding streets represent fresh starts, new beginnings for the immigrant families who imagine they’ve finally arrived after years of struggle. There’s even a kid with a paper route, Josie, who’d inherited the route from her big brother: “Josie loved her routine and the sense of purpose her job gave her. She loved collecting the money at the end of the week from the neighbours, who often slipped her cookies, candy or even a tip.”

Although the centre of this novel is Josie’s best friend June, another first-generation Chinese-Canadian who revels in the expansiveness and freedom of her childhood, playing outside with her packs of friends until the streetlights come on. Like Tom Buzby, June has her eye on things, and she’s got surprising insight into the lives of her neighbours, although she doesn’t understand everything she learns either—least of all, why there’s been a suicide epidemic, and whose parent was going to be next?

A novel in stories is a perfect container for this book about the suburbs, every chapter a different house on the street. Open the door and go inside to find a different story, a closet full of secrets, a peek out the window to a new view of the street. The Portuguese housewife who is tired with putting up with her abusive husband; the young Italian-Canadian wife who has moved to Scarborough away from downtown, and who longs for a baby that doesn’t come; the neighbourhood social butterfly who is secretly a thief, and whose habits eventually get found out by her neighbours. Plus June’s friends, sweet and effeminate Nav, Darren whose academic potential is undermined by a racist teacher, and Josie, whose uncle is sexually abusing her. As with Robertson and the news articles, Leung’s structure permits her to include a wide range of different voices, and to suggest there is no such thing as a central narrative, but instead to shine a light on these remarkable places where stories intersect.

April 24, 2017

Sputnik’s Children, by Terri Favro

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

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

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

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

February 19, 2017

Speedy Deletion: How I Tried and Failed to be on Wikipedia

Because I tell you everything, you have to know that I’ve wanted a Wikipedia page since 2008. This was the year my friend got a Wikipedia page. At the time, I barely had a “Published Works” page on my website, and my website was on Blogspot, and I had a long, long way to travel still. And all these details are a little shameful to admit, because we’re all supposed to be cool about this sort of thing. Like, “Oh, do I have a Wikipedia page? I had no idea, because I certainly don’t google myself weekly.” In my next life, I hope to be that cool, but in this life, I’m the woman who finds every mention of me or my work two days before Google Alerts does. Just once I would like Google Alerts to surprise me—for me this would be a definition of success. It would mean not only that my online mentions were turning up in substantial volumes, but also that I have better things to do than hunt about on the internet looking for them.

Anyway, last summer I decided that the time had finally arrived. I’d amassed a small body of work, some prizes, publication credits, and had a debut novel on the horizon. Because it would be cheating to create my own Wikipedia page (although I have been told that this happens all the time) I asked my husband to make mine for me, a really romantic gesture. And he did. It was really nice, and there I was amongst Canadian authors, and Canadian authors born in 1979, even. But it hadn’t even been a day before the Kerry Clare wiki was causing trouble.

The trouble at the start was kind of innocuous. They wanted references and citations, and this was understandable. There was nothing personal about it. I filled in the blanks and added the details. And then the next problem flagged was that my page was not connected to other pages, or referenced by them. Never mind—I’d fix that too. I connected my page to that of authors who’d been published in my anthology; I linked to an author who’d published me in her anthology. If I could I would have literally underlined that I am in fact a National Magazine Award-nominated author, or bolded the text at the very least. And this, the fact of being a National Magazine Award-nominated author, is really a very Canadian thing—you don’t even have to win. But the Wikipedia editors didn’t know this. (Perhaps “this” is also kind of sad. Don’t think I didn’t consider it.)

It was about four days into my career as a person with a Wikipedia page that  things got more personal, that the notes on the discussion page began to be written by actual people as opposed to the template messages about links and additional citations. The people, who volunteered their time as Wikipedia editors, were not at all impressed by my accomplishments. And for awhile, I tried to engage with the process, to answer their questions, to fill in the blanks, to vouch for my own notability. But the more I tried, the more adamant the editors became. “Being nominated for an award does not make a person notable,” the editor explained. “She didn’t win the award. And her publication date is so far off into the future that it is likely, especially with the current state of publishing, that her book will never in fact be published.”

At this point I finally gave up. Although saying this suggests I had more agency in the matter than I actually did. Even if I hadn’t given up the fight to be on Wikipedia, I was on the shortlist for speedy deletion and it was probably going to happen anyway. But when I did give up, it was because it had dawned on me that battling to remain on Wikipedia was going to have to become my full-time job, and it was exhausting. Turns out I’m not so unnotable that I had absolutely nothing else to do with my time except battle it out with Wikipedia editors. If I’d devoted my life to staying on Wikipedia, I’d never be able to do anything else that was notable again.

I know some people who are as notable as dirt stuck to the bottom of my shoe, and they’re still on Wikipedia. How, I wonder, have they managed to pull it off? Perhaps it’s such a feat of incredible endurance that it makes a person notable after all?

A few lessons I took away from this: first, that the whole exercise is remarkably gendered. (The dirt on the bottom of the shoe people I refer to are male.) It was not lost on me that I am a woman who does have some accomplishments, and that my work was entirely dismissed without hesitation by a group of men who really knew nothing about those accomplishments, and who did not necessarily have any accomplishments of their own. Perhaps I am wrong about this final point, and I would be ecstatic if I were, in fact, but it does occur to me that profoundly successfully (or notable people) don’t necessarily have the time to be editing Wikipedia in the middle of the night. Anyway, the idea of mediocre men undermining a successful woman was not so mind-blowing—I don’t know where exactly, but I’ve heard that one before…

And the second lesson? That it’s really healthy for a person (especially a person who googles herself on a regular basis) to be reminded of her insignificance. I’m not being facetious. And that Wikipedia notability and other such metrics are not those with which we should necessarily gauge our success in the world. I mean, it would be nice, but these aren’t the things that matter. It’s good to know too one can be a total failure in all these respects, and still be entirely happy, and worthy of existence.

October 25, 2016

The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, by Lola Lafon

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On the surface, Lola Lafon’s novel The Little Communist Who Never Smiled (translated from French by Nick Caistor) is a fictionalization of the life of Nadia Comaneci, but that (of course) is just a cover. What the book is really about is messaged in between the lines (or, quite literally, between the words). The Little Communist… is a book about the Cold War, the politicization of sport and womanhood, about deciphering codes and, fundamentally, this is a novel about punctuation.

the-little-communistThe book begins with Nadia’s performance on the uneven bars at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. (I call her Nadia. Everybody did. I wasn’t born until 1979, but I came into a world where girls were still gymnastics-mad and it occurs to me that gymnasts from that time are the only Olympic athletes I’m familiar with who aren’t from my country. From a very young age, I knew who Nadia Comaneci was.)

Her victory hung on point of punctuation, kind of—a decimal. Her score of 10.0 had never been achieved in gymnastics before and therefore the display screen didn’t have the capacity to show it. Lafon shows the confusion and crisis and judges and administrators realized what had happened and the scoreboard read 1.0, and the implications of this—this was an athlete from whom an entirely different system of success would be designed. “New numbers need to be invented. Or just abandon numbers altogether.”

On page 18, Lafon describes Comaneci: “Her arched back is a comma.” Which is significant because of how conspicuous commas are in the text. Comma splices are scattered throughout the novel, and I had to consider their implication, what they do to sentences. How in English they join unlike ideas in slightly jarring ways that makes the reader think twice, and it made me think about Romania in the 1970s and 1980s, a point in between the Cold War divides of East and West. Later in the book, Lafon shows Comaneci delivering an address in 1984 to announce her retirement from competition, an address that was written for her by the writer who composes all her official speeches: “He writes them out in short lines with commas so that she can pause for breath between them.” But in this address there are no commas. “She had not planned to be silent for so long she is simply searching for the comma, she thought she saw it but there wasn’t one, her words are chosen for her one last time, the comma jumps from one word to the next, like the decimal point: one point nought nought, she raises her eyes to those who have no words…”

The echo of the uneven bars creaking at the Montreal Olympics is “an uneven punctuation for her body as it folds itself around them.” Periods are replaced in between the letters of rival Olga Korbut’s first name in a Man From U.N.C.L.E.-like Cold War allusion (O.L.G.A). In her imagined exchanges with Comaneci, Lafon considers the punctuation used in newspaper coverage about Comaneci, “exclamation marks that compete with the ellipses.” There are references to the story of Nadia being written, rewritten (and indeed they are in Lafon’s imagined exchanges, which cast doubt on everything represented by facts. Truth is nowhere. Everything is suspicious.) and defying translation.

And then there is the period, the decimal point in another form. Full stop. Also menstruation (which I don’t think shares its name with a punctuation mark in the novel’s original French, interestingly, although apparently the French term for menstruation means “rules,” so it’s equally firm), which is hugely significant in this text. The arrival of the period signals the beginning of the end of Comaneci’s career, no matter her coach’s and manager’s efforts to stymy the effects of puberty through training and pharmaceuticals. But in the context of Romanian history, it has wider and more disturbing ramifications regarding forced pregnancy tests women were submitted to to eliminate instances of abortion, the way that not only Nadia had her body regarded as property of the state. And really, this sense of ownership over women’s bodies is a universal thing—anyone else who’s not an Olympic gymnast ever been chastised for not smiling?

And yet Lafon avoids obvious and facile comparisons with East and West with her imagined dialogue with Comaneci, who questions the ways in which women and athletes in the West are necessarily more free. While never minimizing the negative effects of life under the Ceaușescu regime, Lafon complicates notions that here and now is necessarily better than then and there. While Romanian people had nothing during the 1980s, Lafon is reminded in imagined conversations that sometimes nothing is better than insatiable materialist desires. All this so that we’re left with a notion of history and truth that is as elusive as Nadia herself, always just slipping out of one’s grasp.

“You quietly airbrushed your mistakes…could we say that?”

“Yes, exactly. I rewrite everything! But….discreetly.” 

Thank you for the International Festival of Authors for inviting me to be a part of your blog tour and giving me the opportunity to read this truly excellent book. 

Lola Lafon’s appearances at Toronto’s 2016 International Festival of Authors
(Supported by the Consulate General of France):
Monday October 24 8pm “Interpreting the Past” (Reading/Round Table)
Wednesday October 26 6pm “EUNIC: Writing History Telling Stories” (Reading/Round Table)

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April 5, 2016

On Putting Politics Aside

IMG_20160401_194028On Friday I was listening to CBC Rewind, and heard then-Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard on the radio in 1979 telling journalist Barbara Frum to shut up and that females didn’t belong on the radio. And hearing that helped me articulate why I had been taking the heroic eulogizing of disgraced Toronto mayor Rob Ford so personally, why I hadn’t been able to respectfully stay silent while Ford was memorialized (even if he was memorialized with such statements as, “He was a profoundly human guy.” Indeed).

Now, I knew about Harold Ballard. From childhood, I have known he was an asshole, and though I didn’t know why he was thought to be so, and I suppose any reason anybody would have told me about wouldn’t have been concerned with his views toward women. Another important point is that I’ve been extremely fortunate in my life to be surrounded by men (my dad, my friends, my husband) who make the idea that some men think women are literally garbage (or objects to be knocked over, or raped, or joked about raping, or silenced—I could go on for paragraphs about the ways Ford was disrespectful and hateful towards women) completely baffling and foreign to me. But these men exist, and they end up in positions of power, and because it’s not 1979 anymore it’s not all right to go on the radio and say as much, but there are certain men who aren’t containable and so everybody knows.

And everybody lets it go too. It’s harmless. He’s just a character.

I was dismayed when Toronto’s current mayor came into power and his first motion was to thank Ford for his service. Really? Ford was ill, but regardless, here was an opportunity for a new beginning, a chance to do better than an ineffectual, decisive council that fuelled resentment and anger across the city. A chance, perhaps, to say nothing, and in that silence to tell this city, “We are better than that. We will no longer stand for this. This is not who we are.” To honour the women of this city, the people of colour and gay community, all of whom were derogated by Ford throughout his term in council. That was when saying nothing would have been a respectful gesture.

But not now. Not when Ford was able to milk his whiny victim narrative right into the grave and beyond, and everybody played along with him. History whitewashed: that this was a man who loved his city, the best mayor Toronto ever had, a man of the people. None of it remotely the truth, and the truth matters. And if “putting politics aside” means overlooking abusive, offensive comments about women uttered by people in power, I really don’t think I’m capable of doing it. Basically my politics are that women are people worthy of respect, an idea so elementary, basic and foundational that I can’t imagine putting it aside ever.

I hope that in 40 years the story of Rob Ford ends up on an episode of CBC Rewind, and a young woman listening won’t be able to believe that there was ever such a person like that, instead of seeing such an anachronism reflected in the world all around her.

February 7, 2016

Patrin, by Theresa Kishkan

IMG_20160205_123939And so #TodaysTeacup continues, the Instagramming of my daily cup of tea, the end of the week marked with #CupAndSaucerFriday. I used to think I had too many sets of cups and saucers, but now it seems as though I don’t have enough. On Friday I took down the last of my cup and saucer sets to use, and was surprised to find that this one set is not from England—not Regency China, or Paragone Fine Bone China, or Coalport. No, this set was from a Czechoslovakian company called Altrohlau. Which was strange because I have Czechoslovakia on the brain, one of the settings for Theresa Kishkan’s beautiful, mysterious novella, Patrina novella in which the characters drink Earl Grey.

patrinI first read Theresa Kishkan in her essay that won the Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest, and which was included in her essay collection, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. Unsurprisingly, trees factor prominently in Patrin as well, in patterns of leaves on a quilt inherited by the title character from her grandmother, a Roma from Czechoslovakia who’d immigrated to Canada and become estranged from the rest of her family. When her grandmother dies, Patrin tries to discern the quilt’s pattern, hoping they might provide clues to her family history, which is otherwise lost to her now, the answer to the questions: from where and what did I come?

The novella weaves together several timelines from throughout the 1970s—Patrin embarking to Europe on her own and having her heart broken by a Gypsy musician; spending time with her grandmother in Edmonton after her father’s death, them sleeping together under the quilt; Patrin working in a bookstore in Victoria later in the decade, isolated from the world, trying to decode the mysteries of her own self; and Patrin journeying to Czechoslovakia to do exactly that in 1979, supposing the pattern of trees and leaves on her grandmother’s quilt might be a map of the area in Moravia in which her foremothers had lived and travelled almost a century before.

The world Patrin finds in Czechoslovakia is shadowy and mysterious, the elusiveness of Patrin’s own story underlined by Soviet-era suspicion and paranoia. A friend of a friend takes her on a journey to Moravia to find if her quilt-map line up with actual places after all, and if any history of her family remains. And here the story takes on dimensions of a fairy tale, rich and verdant with a touch of magic, with an ending that in retrospect was inevitable, and is also perfect.

frog-mugThere’s another teacup too—Patrin takes stock of her “batterie de cuisine” as she moves into her own apartment on Oak Bay Avenue in Victoria in 1974, including a mug “from a potter on West Saanich Road” with a ceramic frog at the bottom. We have a mug just like that, a #TodaysTeacup feature from a few weeks back, Patrin wending its own way into my world, surprising patterns emerging, real life as art’s echo.

September 10, 2015

Daisy Saves the Day, by Shirley Hughes

Daisy Saves the DayBritish institutions collide in today’s Picture Book Friday pick, in which the great Shirley Hughes pens a picture book right out of Downton Abbey with bunting as a major plot point. I know.

The book is Daisy Saves the Day, about a young girl who has to leave school and take a job as a scullery maid in a grand house in London in order to earn money to help care for her younger siblings. Which was not such a remarkable path for a young girl of her class, but Daisy herself is quite remarkable, bright and clever, hardworking at school. She’s also not particularly good at, well, scullery-ing. Her employers’ modern and unconventional niece, who is visiting from America, wrangles her permission to browse the house’s extensive library however, which makes Daisy’s life a little less lonely.

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The story takes place during the summer of 1901 when George V was crowned, and the streets of London were decked in Union Jacks, flags and streamers. (The text doesn’t explicitly say “bunting,” but them there triangles are not just any flags, are they….) Except that Daisy’s house remains plain and unadorned—her employers, The Misses Simms, considered the decorations vulgar. And Daisy, naturally, is disappointed to not be part of the fun.

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Ever-enterprising, however, she devises a cheeky way to join in, fashioning a string of bunting out of dishcloths and pillowcases and BRIGHT RED BLOOMERS, no less.

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Which, of course, gets her in hot water with the Misses Simms, and poor Daisy is landed in disgrace. She’s given so many extra chores that by the end of the day, she’s too tired to even read. But never fear, there will BE redemption. When one night Cook hangs dishcloths a bit too close to the fire and then nods off, it is Daisy who smells the smoke and rushes to the kitchen to help put the fire out, saving the day, as per the title.

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The Misses Simms are so impressed with their young charge that they bestow on her the ultimate gift: they free her from service and offer to pay for her schooling. Because “…it seems to me that you are better at reading than at polishing and scrubbing.” Indeed. And then a happy ending, because Daisy gets to go home to her mother and her brothers. A cheerful end to a cheerful tale, gorgeously rendered in classic Shirley Hughes style, and with endpapers decorated with vintage advertisements for household cleaning products.

We loved this one!

Check out the Daisy Saves the Day website, with more information about the book and activities too.

January 5, 2014

Penelope Fitzgerald and the Holiday Read

Penelope_Fitzgerald_A_LifeAfter we’d gone book-shopping on our recent trip to England, I sat down to read that weekend’s Guardian Books with its books of the year round-up, and found reader after reader citing Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee. Now, my relationship with Penelope Fitzgerald is complicated. She’s an English author called Penelope, which is usually all it takes, but I find her books difficult, inexplicable. There is something there but it’s just beyond my range as a reader. In short, I’m not one of those who “gets” Penelope Fitzgerald. But in my failure to grasp her work, she fascinates me. (If more difficult writers wrote short books, this might be something I experienced more often.) I also love a good biography, and so after reading so many recommendations for the book, I was awfully sorry to find myself stranded on the Fylde Coast with nary a bookshop for miles and miles.

The airport bookshop, I decided, would be my salvation, so I was awfully sorry to discover that the WH Smith in Manchester Airport  Terminal 3 barely had books at all, let alone this one. (My expectations were high: it was at the Manchester Airport WH Smith that I bought my first Elizabeth Bowen novel in 2009. I don’t know if this was a different terminal, or if all the airport bookshops have been economic downturned.) We returned home to Canada without the book, and I requested it for Christmas, then was informed that it would be for sale in Canada until after the holidays. So ever it was not to be.

Until just before Christmas, a friend who knew none of this managed to get her hands on a copy and wrapped it up just for me. Penelope Fitzgerald was mine! I started to read it on Christmas Eve, and this fantastic book became the centre of my holiday.

What a life! Daughter of a prominent family, from a  world that is never to return after WW2. Her father edited Punch, her stepmother was Mary Shepherd, who illustrated Mary Poppins, who was the daughter of the illustrator of Winnie the Pooh. Her mother was at Oxford with Dorothy Sayers and Rose Macaulay. Even the incidental intersections: the house her parents were meant to rent when Fitzgerald was 2 was inhabited by Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray.

Fitzgerald finishes at Oxford and writes book and theatre reviews for Punch, scripts for the BBC. She marries Desmond Fitzgerald, her “Irish soldier”–one of many men in the book who are also shattered by their experiences of war. The embark on a career as literary bohemians, editing a literary magazine together and having three children who add to the disarray of their household. (In the background: miscarriages, at least one stillbirth. Fitzgerald becomes a larger than life character by her biographer’s hand, but still remains elusive.)

Several rented houses are fled from suddenly. The literary magazine folds. Desmond Fitzgerald gets into trouble. Penelope begins supporting her family by teaching, after a stint working part-time in a Suffolk bookshop. She moves them all back to London, where they really cannot afford to live, so she secures them lodgings on a leaky barge which becomes their home from 2 years. (The Penelope Fitzgerald books I’ve read are Offshore [which won the Booker Prize in 1979], The Bookshop and Human Voices, all of which are illuminated by these insights into her biography.)

The barge sinks… Which is a major challenge to Fitzgerald as a biographical subject, so much of her archive winding up at the bottom of the Thames. There is much hardship as she struggles to secure housing for her family, eventually ending up in a council flat in South London where she is happy enough to be settled. And here begins her literary career, publishing her first book at age 60. She writes a biography of her father and his brothers and poet Charlotte Mew before turning to fiction. And it is from this point on that she’s an overnight success. Etc. etc.

What a book! It makes me want to go back and reread the Fitzgerald novels I’ve encountered, to see if finally I can grasp them with such knowledge of their context. It makes me want to read everything she ever wrote, in particular her penultimate novel The Blue Flower, said by many to be a masterpiece. To understand her as un-English makes it all so much clearer, to think of her work in the context of Beckett’s. Her complexity as a person, as a character–impossible and infinitely loveable. Unabashed and brilliant. When she died, I cried. I have to get my hands on her collected letters, because I just want more more more of her.

August 25, 2013

Mary Pratt: On Blogging, and Preserving Light and Time

Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly.

MARY PRATT Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly. 2007. oil on canvas 40.6 x 50.8 cm

It is not a huge leap to look at Mary Pratt’s paintings and have thoughts turn to ideas about the containment and preservation of time. Not least of all because of her paintings of preserves, jams and jellies. Or because she shows that jam jars are containers of not only condiments, but also of light. In the essay “A Woman’s Life” by Sarah Milroy, part of the Mary Pratt book, Pratt recalls early inspiration in her mother’s jars of jelly: “Oh they were gorgeous… she would arrange them along the window-ledge–they were west-facing windows with the light coming through–red currant jelly, highbush cranberry jelly, raspberry jelly, blackberry jelly–all as clear as glass.”

In her work, Pratt also includes more prosaic containers, such as tupperware, and ketchup bottles, as well as preservation agents that capture light with a different kind of beauty–tin foil, saran wrap. Underlining this idea of preservation is that Pratt’s paintings themselves have been painted from photographs, that with a camera Pratt has been able to stop time and preserve a moment in the whirl of domesticity–a supper table that will soon be cleared away, for example. In Sarah Fillmore’s essay “Vanitas”, Pratt notes that “The camera was my instrument of liberation. Now that I no longer had to paint on the run, I would pay each gut reaction its proper homage. I could paint anything that appealed to me… I could use the slide to establish the drawing and concentrate on the light, and the content and the symbolism.”

Whilst reading the Mary Pratt book, which has been created to complement the exhibition of Pratt’s work that will be moving across the country in the coming months, I kept drawing parallels between her work and the womanly art of blogging. This precludes any arguments about amateurism of course, however much some may insist that “blogger” and “amateur” are in fact synonyms. Because Pratt is no amateur, and neither are the bloggers who make art of the form, who craft their posts themselves in order to “pay each gut reaction its proper homage.”

“…it comes from a longing to hold truth in your hands, to feel something of your own existence–a longing to feel alive… The painting of the jelly jar is really about the way that light shines through the glass, the way that light is preserved, like jelly, for all time.” -Sarah Fillmore, “Vanitas”

MARY PRATT Supper Table (detail) 1969 oil on canvas 61.0 x 91.4 cm

MARY PRATT Supper Table 1969 oil on canvas 61.0 x 91.4 cm

Pratt captures the domestic, the seemingly mundane. And yet behind her rich but also simple and familiar images lie deeper stories. Her painting “Kitchen Table”, the first she created from a photograph in 1969, is at first a quiet scene, a table at once empty and yet crowded with the remains of a meal–a ketchup bottle with its cap off, a hotdog left uneaten, crumbs on a plate, drinking glasses in varying states of emptiness (or fullness, perhaps?). And yet, as Catherine M. Mastin points out in her essay “Base, Place, Location and the Early Paintings”, “Pratt’s postwar-era family table is a site of constant labour, meal after meal–which all fell to Mary, with no foreseeable end.” On a more personal note, Pratt’s “Eggs in an Egg Crate” was the first work she completed after the deaths of her infant twins, a painting whose symbolism wasn’t clear to her until somebody else had pointed it out–that the eggs in the carton were empty.

MARY PRATT Eggs in an Egg Crate, 1975 oil on Masonite 50.8 x 61.0 cm

MARY PRATT Eggs in an Egg Crate, 1975 oil on Masonite 50.8 x 61.0 cm

For all their luminosity and the domestic focus, Pratt’s paintings are also wonderfully subversive. Her eggs are usually broken, is what I mean, the cake half-eaten and cut with a big sharp knife, the bananas in the fruit bowl are just a little too ripe. The meat in her “Roast Beef” is a charred hunk (and Pratt recounts in Milroy’s essay, “I can remember when I first showed it in a gallery [and] I heard a woman say, ‘Well, I guess she can paint, but do you think she can cook?'”). Milroy is correct that “In this day of highly stylized food photography…, Mary Pratt’s work seems ahead of the curve,” and yet Pratt’s food paintings are always just a little “off”–the leftovers from a supper of hotdogs, for example, or the casserole dish in the microwave. This is food that people eat, instead of a lacquered sandwich intended for a magazine cover. Hers is a messy, imperfect domestic scene, and yet there is beauty in these scenes that are captured precisely as they are.

MARY PRATT Split Grilse, 1979 oil on Masonite 56.1 x 64.0 cm

MARY PRATT Split Grilse, 1979 oil on Masonite 56.1 x 64.0 cm

Her images of meat and animal carcasses suggest something basic and bodily about domestic life, a suggestion echoed vaguely in the images of her model “Donna”. “That’s what women do,” Pratt recounts in Milroy’s essay. “They wrap things up, or unwrap them, or cut them open, or chop them, ready for the oven.” Fish are also a recurring image in her work, not surprising considering she’s based in Atlantic Canada, but here is the rarely seen flip-side of maritime life–“Salmon on Saran”, “Trout in a Ziploc Bag” or “Fish Head in Steel Sink”. They don’t write shanties about this kind of sea. And then there  is the fire, Pratt’s burning dishcloth on her “Dishcloth on Line” paintings. That same agent used to wipe down the table of dinner-after-dinner is annihilated into a glorious flame which captures the light as intriguingly (and eternally, now that Pratt has preserved the image) as do the far more innocuous jars of jam on the window sill.

Whoever thought the kitchen was a scene of mundanity probably wasn’t looking…

In her essay “Look Here”, Mireille Eagan writes that “Ultimately, [Pratt] asks the viewer to see; she tells us: “Look, here.” Which is what the very best bloggers do too, instead of “Look at me!” using their blogs to implore their readers to, “Look at this!” The result of this being the “sideways autobiography” that Eagan refers to of Pratt’s work. There is no over-arching narrative here, and instead we come to understand the depth of these writers’ lives from the objects, moments and stories they choose to include in their blogs, each individual post its own still-life. Like Pratt, these bloggers are curating their lives, crafting something permanent out of the whirl of the ephemeral. As Eagan writes of Pratt: “Her images reveal a pattern of privacies, of things half-visible, half-said–but articulated, nonetheless. They represent a lifetime of looking closely, an intimation of the buzzing pause before one turns and continues.”

Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2011 oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2 cm

MARY PRATT Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2011 oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2 cm

Mary Pratt is available from Goose Lane Editions. Read more about this stunning book here.

February 6, 2013

Pennies Saved

IMG_0259I hate change of all sorts, except the monetary kind, and so I naturally am very unhappy about the demise of the penny. And so, in my efforts to render the penny eternal, I’ve decided to keep a glass jar full of them until the end of time (or at least until we decide to move, and I wonder if it’s really necessary to preserve a jar of pennies). I’ll display the jar high on a shelf, and one day I’ll show it to my grandchildren who will barely be able to fathom that there was ever such a thing as a one cent coin.

But while all that is still in the future, my little daughter and I sat down this afternoon to sort through the coins in our family’s change jar and take the pennies out. And really, there is no better companion than a three-year-old for such a project. We had a very good time picking out the pennies and guessing if they were old or new based upon their shininess or tarnish. 2009 pennies we decided were Harriet pennies, “from the year you were born!” and pennies from the years after amazing because Harriet was older than they were. We were quite excited to find 1979 pennies too, as old as Dad and Mom. Lots of 1984, and 1992, commemorating Canada’s 125th. And then we found a 1969, which was exciting, and a 1967, which was the most exciting year of all. The oldest penny we found was from 1958, when the Queen looked remarkably young.

Our little jar isn’t filled yet, which means we’ll have to be keeping an eye out for pennies even as they become increasingly rare. In their rarity too, I think, they’re only going to become a little more magic, and really, haven’t they ever been?

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