May 16, 2016
We were at the bookstore a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t narrow down my selection of picture books.
“Should we get,” I proposed to Harriet, “The Fox and the Star, by Coralie Bickford-Smith, or The Dead Bird, by Margaret Wise Brown.” I was emphatically waving the latter in the air.
Harriet pointed to the other one. “Why would I want to read a book about a dead bird?”
“Only because it’s a reissued book by a literary icon that dares to confront uncomfortable issues of mortality.”
“No,” she said.
I said, “Why?”
She said, “I don’t want to read books about dead things.”
She was still annoyed about a recent book I’d read her in which the Grim Reaper comes to tea and takes away the children’s grandmother, and everybody understands and feels good about the whole thing. Even though the children appear to left without a guardian. And even though the book doesn’t address the question of death coming for children, or young parents—would we put the kettle on for the reaper then? Though if someone wrote that book, I’d probably make Harriet read it too.
“So we’re getting The Dead Bird,” I told her. The illustrations are beautiful—by the award-winning illustrator of Last Stop On Market Street— and normalizing death is healthy and wasn’t there a dead bird in Sidewalk Flowers by Jon-Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith? And everybody liked that book.
And Harriet said, “No.”
“The Dead Bird,” I said.
She said, “No dead bird.” And she seemed kind of immoveable, so I didn’t want to push it.
Two weeks later, we were at the library and I saw The Dead Bird on the new releases shelf.
“Now isn’t that lucky,” I said. “A brand new copy of The Dead Bird, and nobody else has picked it up yet. It must be fate. The book was meant for us.”
“Do you think nobody has picked it up,” said Harriet, “because nobody would ever, ever want to read it?”
But I pooh-poohed her. Dropped the book into our library bag. A red-letter day—we’d brought The Dead Bird Home. What a find!
I told her, “I can’t wait to read this.”
She said, “I can.”
I told her, “Just wait. It’s about death. And dying! Come on, you’re going to like it.”
“I won’t,” she said.
I said, “You’ll see.”
Today I told her, “I’m writing a blog post about you reading The Dead Bird.”
She said, “I’m still not going to read it.”
“But how am I going to write the blog post if you don’t?
She told me, “I read it already, actually. By myself.”
“And did you like it?”
She said, “No. It’s about a dead bird. What’s to like?”
I admitted to her, “You know, the New York Times Book Review shares your assessment of it. And of the Grim Reaper book also.”
She said, “I told you.”
I said to her, “Who are you? Are you even my child? Ursula Nordstrom would be rolling in her grave if she could hear you right now.”
And she said, “Yeah. And then Margaret Wise Brown would go ahead and write a picture book about it. And then wouldn’t you like to go and try to make me read that too.”
“You’re not going to let me read you The Dead Bird then.”
And Harriet said, “No.”
May 2, 2016
I’ve been working my way through the works of Tana French ever since my friend Nathalie delivered all of her books to my house on New Years Day in a Waitrose bag, along with a container of soup. (Remember December, when everybody was sick?) Now usually such a loan would constitute a kind of imposition, but I’d been meaning to get into Tana French, and as soon as I opened the first book (In the Woods), I was hooked: “What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracted confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception…”
And this is what’s most compelling about French’s novels, the slipperiness of her first person narrators, how they’re always just clinging to the edges of things, and totally unconscious of how close they are to falling. The subtlety with which she reveals the true circumstances behind her narrator’s carefully constructed reality, the skilful way she manages to reveal all the things these characters would never, ever tell us. The things these characters don’t even properly know themselves.
I’m reading her fourth novel now, Broken Harbour. (One more title to go before I return the Waitrose bag, and then French has a new novel coming out this fall. And then I fear it’s going to be like Harriet and Amulet, the way she went through the whole series, 1-7, boom boom boom, having no idea that Amulets don’t grow on trees, thinking new ones were an ever-available resource, and now she has to wait an eternity for number 8). And the book is kind of ruining my life, because I can’t stop reading it, staying up far too late and just-one-more-chapter. Because how can I not want to know what happens next?
Both my children are currently undergoing sleep changes and bed experiments and we’re all playing musical beds at our house these days, and the last few nights I’ve been awakened twice or three times before dawn. But I really can’t blame my current stupor on this entirely, on my children. Because the real reason I’m so tired, like words-confusingly tired, should-not-be-permitted-to-operate-a-motor-vehicle tired, is that I’m staying up past midnight reading Tana French, and then even once I manage to put the book down and turn the light off, I’m still immersed in its atmosphere, fearing shadows in the darkness. Awake and lying still, alert to barely perceptible sounds. Perhaps imagined ones. And the distinction doesn’t even matter.
September 19, 2014
Iris is the solution to everything, namely if your “everything” is getting away with the world’s most paltry book haul from the Victoria College Book Sale (which runs all weekend). And my everything was certainly that very thing this morning, because I have so many books and the bookstore called me yesterday to let me know my order is in, plus the one I bought online yesterday direct from the publisher etc, so I didn’t need any more. So this is all I came away with, which I am quite pleased about, because under most circumstances I have absolutely no restraint.
I’d come prepared with a cookie and a cinnamon bun, hoping these would keep Iris occupied for a little while, and they did, for about 10 minutes, as she snacked in her stroller. But then she wanted out, which she demonstrated by screaming and screaming, because Iris has recently come into her own as a piercing soprano. I ignored her for a little while, and tried to pretend there was nobody else around. And then finally, I took her out and put her in her carrier, browsing continued, popping a “dumma” (soother) into her mouth, but that peace lasted no more than sixty seconds. Who screams while sucking on a soother? But Iris wanted to go, so I let her, and that was okay, because underneath the book tables were boxes and boxes and more books, and Iris likes things in boxes, and I got to look at a whole bunch more books while she played with a box of Goosebumps paperbacks (hence my excellent picture book selection).
And then I took her upstairs to the fiction, which had no boxes under the tables at all, and she was obsessed with the big old staircase that we’d had to climb to get up there, so every time she was let loose, that was where she headed. A brief diversion was a wastebasket, and I let it go for awhile, but then she started picking things out of that box, so I shut it down. I had to hold her, and she was screaming and screaming. Again, I kept my head down and ignored everybody. Surely, I thought, they’d understand that a mother needs to get her book browsing done. A smart trick was holding Iris upside down, which was funny, so she laughed instead of screamed, but that only goes so far, and it made it hard to look for books. And so she kept on screaming, and I think some people may not have found it so charming, but what is a bookish mother to do, I ask you? Well, give up, which I eventually did, but only because I had no business buying books in the first place.
As I was leaving, a very earnest undergrad came up to me and pointed to Iris, who had since calmed down, because we were no longer looking at books. “Is that the baby that was unhappy?” she asked. Apparently Iris was getting a reputation. “Is she okay?” she asked me. “Well, she’s Iris,” I should have told her, but instead I promised her that she was. Whereupon we met my seven-months-pregnant friend and her two-year-old who’d turned an Old Vic couch into a trampoline. I am not sure the book sale is going to recover from a visit from the likes of us.
September 14, 2014
On Saturday morning, I read the newspaper and cried, so overwhelmed was I by despair, three articles in a row—David Gilmour teaching classes again this year at my alma mater; a certain male sportsperson not convicted of violence upon the girlfriend he shot to death; 10 people charged in the attack of Malala Yousafzai, a child shot for the crime of going to school. Not to mention the sad circus of municipal politics in my city, a state of affairs that has led me to abandon Twitter for awhile because I just cannot stand the onslaught of awful, this horrible misogynist idiot whose supposed tumour will never alter my conviction that he’s a dangerous shitty human being who says horrible things about women and whose wife has had to call the cops on him more than once. This man has forever viewed himself as beyond reproach, and now that he’s ill, we’re all meant to finally agree with him? I cannot.
It is also relevant that my baby keeps terrible hours and I’m very tired. But it’s relevant too that I spent last week reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, yet another piece of evidence that affirms that we live in a world that treats girls and women like garbage. And maybe it was just a coincidence that I was reading this book as I was sent into despair, a testament to its power perhaps. But I don’t know, because whenever I was asked about, I’d respond with, “The book is…well. It won the Bailey’s Fiction Prize.” Otherwise, I probably never would have read it. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s interesting, yes, but underwhelmingly so. The prose is as half-formed as its girl is, deliberately. Sentences stumped off, broken, truncated. There is no evolution, no progress. Even McBride’s girl’s life, in all its sordid detail, is not abject in anyway—there is cruelty, abuse, the usual litany of terrible things. But I’ve read worse, rendered in prose that stunned me, rather than this prose, which numbed me. Or I thought it had at least, until I found myself crying over the newspaper.
I don’t think I could properly write a review of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. For a good example of one, however, read Anne Enright’s, in which she so perfectly articulates what I can only throw my hands up and gesture about in regards to this book. What I am reviewing here is more my own reaction to this book, which confuses me. I recoil from it, not because its so difficult. Yes, the prose is difficult to find one’s way into, but once you’re in, you’re in, and there is a peculiar rhythm and rhyme to it that make the pieces fit. Perhaps it was the unrelentingness of it all, that there was progress after all, but it was always going toward the same place and I was longing for any moments of light. What a courageous author who dares to give her readers none of that, to hold back on everything we’re hoping for to save us. To tell the story she wants to tell, and it’s true that I never wanted to put the book down. I don’t want to open it again, yes, but that’s a different thing.
I didn’t like this book. I didn’t like it at all. But I read it and I’m glad I did, because it’s like nothing else that’s going these days, and because there was nothing half-formed about the book itself. (Read McBride’s profile in The Guardian: “I think the publishing industry is perpetuating this myth that readers like a very passive experience, that all they want is a beach novel. I don’t think that’s true, and I think this book doing as well as it has is absolute proof of that. There are serious readers who want to be challenged, who want to be offered something else, who don’t mind being asked to work a little bit to get there.”) I’m glad I read this book because the fact of whether or not I liked it doesn’t really matter at all, and I like any book that shifts the conversation away from that point, such a sad and tired place from which to embark upon a literary discussion.
January 13, 2013
In June, I wrote this:
“Against Domesticated Fiction, or The Need for Re-Enchantment” was an essay by Patricia Robertson in Canadian Notes & Queries 84, in which Robertson decried contemporary writers in general for their failure to imagine the world beyond the individual, and the failure of contemporary writing to be anything but tedious. Hers was an inspiring argument, even stirring, and yet… I’m not yet tired of the kind of novel she’s maligning. Domesticated fiction remains what I most want to read, and I’m not nearly finished with it yet. And I don’t even have a good argument as to why this should be the case, except that I think that with the reader taking an imaginative leap, domesticated fiction can do as well as the fantastic, or any other kind of literature, to “incorporate some of the wildness, the strangeness, the mystery of the world around us.” To show that we are indeed “participants in a vast web of being.”**
Last week, Kyo Maclear published a fantastic essay at 49thShelf shelf about embracing “the bad read”, celebrating the kind of fiction that doesn’t go down easy. She wrote, “Yes, bring on the bad reads. Bring on those lousy good-for-nothing novels that embrace novelty, possibility, and surprise. Let’s hear it for god-awful fiction that believes anything can happen—that captures the weird, the awkward, the complicated, the downright bizarre…you know, the really real…in all its ghastly glory.”
Her argument was not dissimilar from Robertson’s, but Maclear came at it from a different point of view that made me less defensive. First, because she does that brilliant thing that critics never do wherein she celebrates one thing without necessarily denigrating another. And also because her point of view is similar to mine, as a reader and writer of “lyrical realism.” Her rallying call stirred my heart, and every part of my brain registered how completely right she was. How could I feel any other way, considering how often I am frustrated by readers’ refusal to be challenged by fiction? And yet, I could only be stirred so far. I don’t know who or what could ever compel me to pick up a porcine allegory, let alone an erotic one. (I’m still too afraid to read Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead, for heaven’s sakes.) I want to be challenged, but I don’t want to be that challenged.
And isn’t that what we all find ourselves saying? When we throw up our arms and plead, “I’m 21 weeks pregnant with a small child and I only get the tiniest blocks of time to read in every day. Kindly leave me to read what I like. No sex pigs, please.” So yes, part of it is that I’m perpetually tired, as perpetually tired as every single human being on this planet is, but another part is that I cannot bring myself to be interested in a story unless human beings on this planet are what it’s addressing. Not just with books either–I can’t watch animated films unless its characters are people. I just don’t care. And I just don’t care about books depicting other worlds either, or other versions of this one. I liked A Wrinkle In Time, but only when they were at home, for example. The only part I liked in The Princess Bride is when Fred Savage is reading with his grandfather.
So now I’m doing that thing, denigrating an entire genre, but I’m not actually. I’m just clarifying the enormous gulf that lies between me and the kind of “bad reads”, anything’s-possible book that Maclear recommends. Perhaps if I weren’t too tired, I might do well to pick up some books from Leah Bobet’s Speculative Fiction Titles for Literary Readers list. Maybe what I’m suffering is not so attitudinal as a lack of a bridge? Why am I so afraid to take a leap?
But it’s not fear altogether. I’m not scared of speculative fiction necessarily (though the sex pigs, yes, sound terrifying) but I just don’t quite see the need for it. I’m still not finished with this world yet, and I don’t know that fiction is either. And while it’s a stunning achievement to construct a new universe, I think that any fiction writer does that whenever she sits down to write. I think that realism is perfectly capable of “embrac[ing] novelty, possibility, and surprise”. That last year, books by Anakana Schofield did this, and Zadie Smith, and Lauren Groff (though yes, she’s a genre blurrer at heart), and Annette Lapointe did this. Even Carrie Snyder’s book And these are the books I will challenge myself to read, though they don’t go down as easy as, say, A Large Harmonium by Sue Sorensen (which is so so so wonderful. Have I told you that lately?). For me, these books aren’t necessarily “good-reads” and they have passages and sections I have to read over and over to understand and appreciate what’s going on. Maybe one woman’s good-read is another’s bad-read, and speculative fiction is my “can’t read”? And really, what is reading for? And for whose sake? Do we have to save the world with book we pick up? And why ever wouldn’t we want to? And who’d ever have the time?
As ever, I’ve got no answers, but I look forward to more circular arguments and frustrations in a forthcoming post on Olive Kitteridge, naturally.
**Interestingly, there are responses to Robertson’s piece in the latest issue of CNQ. I haven’t read them yet, but look forward to doing so.
November 19, 2012
I have so much trouble reading when I’m 6-12 weeks pregnant. As I’ve done it twice now, I can say for a fact that I am the problem and it’s not necessarily the books I encounter, all of which seem to me to be absolutely intolerable. In my first trimester of pregnancy, I completely lack the patience required to overlook the (often obligatory) parts of any book that are intolerable, and understand its fundamental goodness. I can’t read a book that’s very long either, because eventually it becomes associated with nausea and even the thought of the book makes me want to puke. I have a similar relationship with Calgary– every time I go there, I’m 6 or 8 weeks pregnant, and I can’t even think about it anymore. And with Cloud Atlas, whose first pages I read in Calgary and therefore never again.
Another book I can’t handle is Cybele Young’s A Few Bites, which is so so good! But the book came into my life when I was six weeks pregnant and when Ferdie is presented with his lunch of broccoli, carrot sticks, and ravioli, my stomach heaves. I can no longer eat broccoli, which is bizarre because I’ve always loved it, but no longer, temporarily I hope. We’ve had to ask our organic food delivery to stop bringing it because every week I threw it out.
There is Nicola Barker’s The Yips, which I bought in Calgary but Calgary was not even the problem. The biggest problem I think is that it was not as good as Burley Cross Postbox Theft or Darkmans, and I was so unhappy (and feeling sick) while I was reading it. There were a few weeks where I hated everything, and not just books, but then I started reading A Very Large Soul: Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence, and began to feel better. Correspondance and short stories were the trick I guess, fragments, and perhaps this was why I was so elated to discover Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories–finally a book to fall in love with. And the Susans anthology. And slowly, slowly, I was happy to find that I could love books again. (I am not sure that Calgary will recover so easily.)
So yes, this is a round-about way of saying that after being the first woman ever to have a baby three and a half years ago, I am going to pioneer the act of having a second at the end of May. Literary trauma aside, I’ve had a relatively easy first trimester and have been so grateful for Harriet’s mornings at school so that I’ve still been able to get my work done. Grateful too that we dragged out Harriet’s napping through the weeks when I needed it most. Also that emotionally, I’ve have a much easier time of it this time around–with a three year old running around, less apparent miracles are easier to believe in. I have faith this time, and it’s so refreshing not be crazy (though we’ll see how long the sanity lasts. In my experience, it comes in limited quantities only).
I am excited and terrified, and hoping that everyone who promised it would be easier second-time around wasn’t lying. I am really excited for Harriet to become a sister. And most of all, I just feel enormously lucky, that this decision whether or not to have a second child was one we had the freedom and good fortune to make for ourselves.
April 26, 2012
As it was when I first read this book in 2008, the plot is weak, but then plot is not the point in Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down, which is this year’s One Book Toronto read and also one of the most evocative Toronto books I’ve read ever. And it’s been a funny week on my end, nothing dire, much that’s lovely, but just very busy and divorced from the strict routine my life is constructed around usually. Yesterday, I rode the subway so many times I bought a day-pass, and it was a strange thing to be reading this book on the TTC and carrying it through other places where some its most important scenes are set. It was a strange thing also to come home from a gathering where emotions were particularly heightened, and I kept thinking about the line on page 128, “our lives marked always by the proximity of others.”
It’s such an atmospheric book, and the atmosphere keeps stealing into my own. Today I felt like Alex does: “…everything now seemed to assimilate into the city’s larger narrative.” Or rather, the city assimilating into Maggie Helwig’s narrative. It’s remarkable, isn’t it, the curious places where fact and fiction meet. Today I encounter the newspaper headline, “Students, staff at Scarborough elementary school fall ill”. ““They did a thorough inspection of the school and carbon monoxide or any other airborne problems were deemed not to be the cause,” said… spokesman for the Toronto Catholic District School Board”. And even the abortion clinic scenes, and today’s attack on Canadian women’s reproductive rights.
“So it was like that now, catastrophe inevitable at the most empty moments. Everyone waiting, almost wanting it, a secret, guilty desire for meaning. Their time in history made significant for once by that distant wall of black cloud.”
And it’s funny because my reaction to this book upon first read was that the Toronto under siege depicted felt so foreign to me– I’d missed the SARS epidemic, and the big black-out. But Helwig’s city feels more familiar now, and not just the police brutality since this happened, or how much awful the world is in 2012 as compared to how it was in 2008 (which is much). More amusingly, there’s the scene where the pigeon gets into the hospital, which definitely means more since this happened (and the birds! How I have to reread Headhunter).
But I think basically I’ve just been overwrought this last day or so and that the weather has been funny, but still. What crazy things fiction can do to our minds, and the innumerable ways our stories appear to affect the world.
October 7, 2011
I knew we were in for trouble once I’d spent most of Monday in tears about the death of Ralph Steinman, co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology. For the next few days, emotions and hormones conspired to make me insane, and were assisted by my having read Lois Lowry’s The Giver and then Tessa McWatt’s Vital Signs, two very different books who share much heaviness in common. By the time I started reading Pasha Malla’s The Withdrawal Method on Wednesday, things were out of control. “Everybody’s dying of cancer in this book,” I kept exclaiming. “I thought Pasha Malla was supposed to be funny.” (Interestingly, reading McWatt followed by Malla was sort of fascinating, if not depressing. Both books share surprising things in common beyond their pictograms, Malla’s first story, “The Slough” in particular.) I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take much more of it, but was urged onwards at a gathering of Pasha Malla devotees on Wednesday night, which was operating under the guise of a reading by Rebecca Rosenblum and Laura Boudreau at Type Books. The Pasha Malla thing I discovered once I’d started railing against The Withdrawal Method in the cookbook section, and was confronted by a league of passionate defenders. Sympathetic passionate defenders, mind you. They understood about the Ralph Steinman thing and that I was operating under a limited emotional capacity at the moment. That perhaps this wasn’t the book for everyone, at every time. And I understood that it was a bit like back in my first trimester of pregnancy when I hated every single book that came my way because I associated all of them with feeling nauseous and exhausted, except that now, of course, I’m the opposite of pregnant.
Anyway, I woke up yesterday feeling much less idiotic, and continued on with The Withdrawal Method, and appreciated it more than I’d ever thought possible on Wednesday. Am convinced that this all really does have something to do with the second half of the book being better than the first, but perhaps that’s just my idiot bias showing. Regardless, I’m following it up with novel by Jennifer Weiner, which is the sort of thing I need right now like I really need a hot bath and a bar of chocolate.
July 25, 2011
I was expecting to have a brand new book review for your reading pleasure today, except that in the space of 36 hours this weekend, I gave up on three (3) books. One wasn’t a bad book, but it just wasn’t interesting for me, and you’d wonder why I was reviewing it; the second was a flawed first book that I might have stomached (it had worth) but it wasn’t up my alley; and the third was a very popular book whose author’s prose had me grimacing in the forward and it was only more of the same– I gave it until page 6. So no new book review, but now I am reading Kate Christensen’s The Astral, and I think it’s her best book yet. I hope I’m able to fit in one more book before we leave for vacation on Saturday (when I will disappear off the edge of the internet for a week, by the way).
And do check out what I’ve been cooking up over at Canadian Bookshelf lately: I wrote about the nonfiction writers event at Ben McNally’s last week with Sarah Leavitt and Andrew Westoll; a guide for short story reading novices; and this fabulous guide to 2011 Canadian literature festivals. See also great guest posts by Rebecca Rosenblum, Jessica Westhead and Robert J. Wiersema.
June 6, 2011
I haven’t read much YA fiction since coming of age, and though I do raise eyebrows at adults who read it exclusively (what? I’m just passing judgment…), I’ve got no case to make against the genre itself. Because YA made me into the reader I am, one that reads voraciously, and I am sure that’s because my YA books were packed with subject matter that was no less than fascinating: namely the “kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings” for which this bizarre piece maligns modern YA–not to mention a whole lot of sex. Here, I highlight the best of the sordid:
Forever by Judy Blume: This book is infamous, it has teenage sex (on a rug!) and a penis with a name. Also, a grandmother who disseminates Planned Parenthood paraphernalia. Is probably the main reason any teenager ever got pregnant. Or used birth control and didn’t.
Sunshine by Norma Klein: Norma’s books were always a bit sexy, but this one in particular. Also, it was based on a true story, but what YA novel wasn’t? The story of Jill who is a divorced, teenage single mother who is not only having an affair with a hippie on a mountain top, but is dying of cancer.
Looking On by Betty Miles: This book sat on our toilet cistern, so everyone in my family has read it a lot. It’s the story of Rosalie, who becomes infatuated with a young couple from the community college who rent a trailer in her backyard. No blatant sex, but Rosalie is totally miserable, and spends a lot of time fantasizing about the young man’s thighs beneath his cut-offs.
Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan: A militant feminist manifesto about a group of female students bent on vengeance for the inequality in their everyday lives. Incredibly violent. There is also, naturally, sex. (Do see all of Lois Duncan’s other books if you think that modern YA fiction is disturbing).
Hey, Dollface by Deborah Hautzig: This book is about two miserable teenage girls who explore lesbian relations together. I read it over and over, in particularly the part about breast fondling.
Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume: Misery galore: Murdered dad, broken dreams, the atomic bomb, and an annoying aunt called Bitsy. Though I was mostly drawn to the part where she gets it on with her boyfriend under the boardwalk.
Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews: The sex was incestuous, but that was all right with me!
Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume: And boys can be miserable too! Here, we’re dealing with a brother dead in Vietnam, class struggles, and a boy who uses his binoculars for “bird watching” if you know what I’m saying. Because the teenage girl next store never closes her drapes.
Sweet Valley High by Francine Pascal: Don’t hate me, but I didn’t love these books. Mostly because there wasn’t enough explicit sex. But there were enough boyfriends, misery, backseats and post-game parties that I could read what was going on between the lines.
Face on a Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney: Just wanted to point out that my generation liked to read about kidnappings too, and that we turned out all right!