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.
January 6, 2014
We really did have the nicest December, mostly because the weather was always terrible we just kept cancelling our plans and staying home. We visited the art gallery on Christmas Eve, which might have to become a tradition because the place was empty and we had an excellent time. We also pulled off a string of going out for lunch three days in a row, which is how we roll and how we love it. In terms of book haul, we received some wonderful children’s books for Christmas that I expect to be writing about here in the weeks ahead. And my own book stack was pretty impressive, as the photo makes clear (and check out my new Cath Kidston mug. Guaranteed to make winter days brighter). The Genesis book is from the photography exhibit that we loved and went to see over and over. So nice to have a bit of it to live with us forever. And two Rebecca Solnits–I just finished reading Wanderlust yesterday. She is so so wonderful.
And speaking of wonderful, my husband made a dream come true this Christmas by giving me my very own book stamp: “From the Library of Kerry Clare”. It’s a beautiful stamp, and the ink goes on so smoothly that the stamp looks like it’s printed. It has been suggested to me that because I have a book stamp now that maybe I might start lending out my books, but no, of course not. Let’s not be totally ridiculous.
(What bookish gifts did you receive this year?)
December 30, 2013
If this is a year in pictures, 2013 only needs this one for me. Not just my favourite image of the year but perhaps my favourite image of all time, my baby brand new, sticky, shrieking and naked, yanked out into the world one day shy of 42 weeks in utero. The image I never got to see when Harriet was born, and a sign that this might be our chance to right what went wrong the first time we had a baby. Not the birth I’d envisioned, cold and sterile, my body split in two, and we were so disappointed. (It is true that whenever anyone has had a baby since, I have cried because Iris’s birth was another c-section.) And yet, this image for me was a glimpse of possibility, that this could be another story. Iris’s birth was a new beginning in so many senses–of her life, course, and of our family as four. But it was also for me a rebirth of myself, that self that had been so shattered when I became a mother for the first time. The second time, however, has been like coming full circle, a journey to somewhere familiar and brand new.
This year has reassured me even with its challenges. I used to worry that I was only a happy person because circumstantially I’ve been extremely blessed, and while I am blessed and I also think I have a chemical disposition for happiness (another blessing, though after about eight more weeks of winter, I will be telling a different story), I managed moments of happiness too in times of stress and enormous fear. I think of a week in March whilst we were awaiting biopsy results, and how we spent the week so gloriously, but then the sun was shining and I’d decided to believe in the odds in my favour (and so they were). But still. I may be braver than I think. I am also grateful that my worst fears were averted. Further, I have learned a lot about things going wrong and how these things don’t necessarily signal, quite literally, the end of the world.
“Over time, I’ve come to understand that when Jamal says that a situation is normal, he means that there are flaws in the cloth and flies in the ointment, that one must anticipate problems and accept them as a part of life. Whereas I’ve always thought that things are normal until they go wrong, Jamal’s version of reality is causing me to readjust my expectations for fault-free existence and to regard the world in a more open fashion.”–Isabel Huggan, “Leaning to Wait, from Belonging
I stood on the cusp of 2013 with a great deal of uncertainty–I was partaking in a freelance writing project that would be quite intense and something I’d never done before, and I knew there would be a newborn baby in my life again, which seemed a horrifying proposition. But I’ve met both these challenges quite impressively, and it is funny that what caused me real problems during the past year was that cystic tumour growing up on my thyroid when it had never even occurred to me that I had a thyroid. It seems you never do know, which is a promise as much as something to fear.
The world has smiled on us a lot this year. First, with the birth of our strong, healthy baby; with our brilliant summer as Stuart had 12 weeks on parental leave; with Stuart being promoted to a new job that makes him so very happy upon his return to work; with a book contract for The M Word, which I am so very proud to have my name attached to; with Harriet who manages to be as wonderful as she is annoying (and that’s huge). I like people who are 4 years old. I am lucky to have Stuart in general, who delivers my tea in the morning. I am grateful for him, and to our families for their love and support. I am also grateful for our new queen-sized bed, which means that Iris sleeping with me every night (and sometimes the “sleep” is elusive) is not nearly as bad as it sounds.
I started writing when Iris was just a few weeks old, my mind and imagination anxious to be exercised. I hadn’t written short fiction for so long–the previous year had been spent on The M Word, year before that on a novel forever unfinished that has served its purpose but I’m done with it. But since then, I’ve been busy, and I do hope that some of that productivity turns into publishing credits in the year ahead. I’ve sent out submissions, which is the part of the battle I have any control over. That and working hard on my pieces of course. I’ve been focussing on revising and getting feedback, both of which I’d shrugged off for too long, out of fear, I think, and habit (too much blogging). I am proud of my book reviews this year, my Ann Patchett review in The Globe, of Hellgoing in Canadian Notes and Queries, and Alex Ohlin’s two books at the Rusty Toque. I am also happy to be reviewing kids books for Quill & Quire. I continue to be so grateful for the opportunity to promote great Canadian books through my job at 49thShelf–come March, I’ll have been working on the site for 3 years.
My New Years resolutions (in addition to writing and revising and submitting) is to not to any of the annoying things I complain about authors doing once I’ve got a book in the world myself. I’ll be writing more about this in a few weeks time. Will be interesting and educational to see it all unfold from the other side of the page.
My reading resolution of 2013 was to read more non-Canadian books, which is kind of a weird resolution but I was stuck in a CanLit bubble and it was making me crazy. So I am pleased that I read outside of that bubble (and that I’ve read 4/5 of the best fiction of the year according to the New York Times). There is not reading what everyone else is reading but also reading totally out of the loop, and I feel that in 2013, a balance was struck. (I just finished reading another top-rated book of 2013, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, which was so wonderful. I am so glad I didn’t let it pass me by.) For 2014, I would like to put a focus on reading books in translation, because really “the novel” is so much richer than I’ve glimpsed by English language focus.
This year I’ve read 92 books or thereabouts, which is far fewer than I’ve read it years and years. But I’ve also read more long, long books than I have in recent years and taken my time and enjoyed them. I also know that I’ve read about as much as has been humanly possible, save for the problem of my possible addiction to twitter (which I’m working on) so I am content with the total. Content also because the books I’ve read have been so extraordinary. (I have also abandoned a ton of books in 2013, and I am totally happy with that.)
Over the past few days, we’ve been busily decluttering the corners of our apartment. We’ve made a commitment to stay in this place we love so much as long as it’s comfortable to live here, and so we’re working on that comfort and making space by clearing away all the things we don’t need. And suddenly, our house is bigger, airier, and cleaner than we thought it was–the space! (Certainly, getting the fir tree out of the living room helps a little bit. Also getting rid of that box of plates in the kitchen that hasn’t been opened since the last time we moved.)
Out with the old then and in with the new, and it’s all so refreshing, full of possibilities. Though the greatest thing about the situation, of course, is just how pleased are we to be where we are.
November 27, 2013
“The more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies. I felt less isolated. I wasn’t floating on my little raft in the present; there were bridges that led over to solid ground. Yes, the past is another country, but one that we can visit, and once there we can bring back the things we need.
Literature is common ground. It is ground not managed wholly by commercial interests, nor can it be strip-mined like popular culture–exploit the new thing then move on.
There’s a lot of talk about the tame world versus the wild world. It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations.
Reading is where the wild things are.”
–Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?
October 14, 2013
“I am, we each are the inmost of an endless series of Russian dolls; you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you. We live as literally as that inside each other’s thoughts and work, in this world that is being made all the time, by all of us, out of beliefs and acts, information and materials. Even in the wilderness your ideas of what is beautiful, what matters, and what constitutes pleasure shape your journey there as much as do your shoes and map also made by others.” –Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
August 24, 2013
“Buy hardback fiction and poetry. Request hardback fiction and poetry as gifts from everyone you know. Give hardback fiction and poetry as gifts to everyone. No shirt or sweater ever changed a life. Never complain about publishing if you don’t buy hardcover fiction and poetry regularly.”– Annie Dillard, “Notes for Young Writers”
August 21, 2013
July 17, 2013
We have to thank my lovely cousin, who is my oldest and one of my dearest friends, for delivering this most remarkable picture book into our life. She’d had enough of waiting for Les Ontoulu ne mengest pas les livres to be translated into English and so gave it to us in its original French, along with her very own English translation alongside. And thank goodness she did–this book is wonderful! It is a story about the Ontoulu family (whose name translates as “Read It All”). Their home is full of literary treasures, and the parents are eager to pass on their love on books to their adorable son Lulu. Because books are their life– the Ontoulu’s read books, write books, collect books, they even eat bo– no! don’t be ridiculous! They’d didn’t eat books!
But when they do introduce books to wee Lulu, figuring that he will love them as much as they do, he promptly sticks them in his mouth. Apparently they feel so good on his teething gums, and the Ontoulu parents are horrified. “Lulu, in our family we don’t eat books,” they tell him and they take the books away until he’s finished teething.
But the next time they give him a book, he throws it on the floor–he loves the music the book creates as it lands. He draws in his picture books. He tears out the pages of a travel book to make into a kite. And his parents are exasperated, while poor Lulu really doesn’t understand both why they’re so unhappy with him and what’s the big deal about books anyway? They seem to only create problems, and besides, he’s never once managed to get to the end of a story.
One day, however, in an effort to cheer up his Papa who is sick in bed, Lulu opens up a book and begins making up a story of his own. His Papa realizes that of all the literary treasures in their home, the amazing stories that Lulu imagines are the greatest of all of them. He and his wife develop a more playful attitude toward their home library, conceding that books sometimes do indeed make fine building blocks for constructing castles and other splendid unconventional things. And with his parents’ more relaxed approach to the bookish life, Lulu begins to understand their passion and decides that he too is going to become a reader of books, a writer of books, a collector of books and an eater of bo–no! don’t be ridiculous! He’s not going to eat books.
How lovely to read a Canadian picture book in our other official language. Merci, ma cousine!
May 27, 2013
I just finished rereading A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, which I remember reading for the first time about 3.5 years ago in my room with the lighting so dim I could hardly see the words, and there was a little baby napping on my chest. Oh, is there anything worse than a little baby napping on your chest and then feeling a coughing spasm coming on? I remember that too. Of the many ways in which I’m in limbo at the moment, reading-wise is one. I have the new Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel waiting on my shelf, but it’s huge and I can’t make such a commitment to anything at the moment while I’m waiting for baby to begin to arrive. After baby comes, I will crack open Where’d You Go Bernadette, but I’m saving it ’till then. I reread Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin last weekend when I was sick. “What to read next?” is not usually a question I spend much time grappling with, as the books usually seem to be lined up for me, but not here and not now. Which is kind of lovely, a luxury–the only bit of this waiting in which I’m really revelling. And all I really want to do is reread. I think I’m going to pick up a Margaret Drabble next–the follow-up to The Radiant Way (my first and best Drabble…) which is A Natural Curiosity–I read it once the summer I got married. (I keep plucking these books off the shelf and they’re covered with dust.)
You might recall that my computer died in June 2009, with nothing on it backed up, including my list of Books Read Since 2006. Which means that I soon after started a new list, which is basically “Books I’ve Read Since Harriet’s Birth”. I updated it this evening–503 books read in my child’s lifetime. Not counting the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve read to her.
And speaking of Barbara Pym, whom I am really anxious to reread all summer long, a fun online reading project will be taking place in celebration of her centenary on Sunday. Barbara Pym Reading Week runs from June 1-8, with giveaways and a virtual tea party even. Ideally, I’ll be lost in newbornhood by that point, or even pulling off my ultimate celebratory stunt (giving birth on the big day), but I think I may be rereading Excellent Women at some point in solidarity.
I do so love Pym, whose essence was Englishness, who knew much about nuance, psychology, tea, womanhood, longing and romance. But who perhaps knew less about motherhood, if this passage from A Glass of Blessings is anything to go by…
“We were in her bed-sitting-room after supper, and I had been telling her about Sybil’s forthcoming marriage and what an upheaval it was going to make in our lives.
‘Yes,’ said Mary, ‘marriage does do that, doens’t it?–and death too, of course.’
‘But not birth.”
‘No–people seem to come more quietly into the world…’”
Which is not exactly how I remember it. But maybe I remember it wrong?
May 16, 2013
All my best opportunities usually come my way a week or two before or after I give birth, and you can’t say no. So at the moment, I am working on a review assignment I’m quite excited about, and I’m not remotely bothered that Baby will probably still be a little while in coming, because I have to get this article finished anyway. I am also pleased because from my post-partum stupour, I’ll see my name in print, and I imagine this will read as an encouraging sign from a world beyond (or behind) that I still exist, or at least that my writing does, somewhere. Anyway, none of this is really the point, which instead is that I’m thinking how much more time I spend on the books I’m reading for work than the books I read for fun, and what I’m missing. For example, the first time I read through this slim volume, I found it baffling and wondered how one was supposed to review a book one didn’t understand. And then I read it again, and again, and now all of a sudden I’ve got this ARC full of notes, crazy connections, ideas, and I’m working toward a spectacular synthesis of this short story collection which, you won’t believe it, won’t just be a summary of each of the stories contained within–who knew this was possible?
Now, fair enough, sometimes this isn’t possible. Some books are really as insubstantial as they appear at first reading. A lot of short story collections really are not very remarkable as wholes, or even in parts. I’ve been fortunate to have been assigned a book by a writer whose talent is extraordinary, and it’s this extraordinary work that has drawn me so deeply into this book I just skimmed across first time through. But it makes me wonder what would happen if I approached every book I read this closely, if I were this actively engaged, if all my unpaid reviews were as interesting and thought-out as this paid one is going to be. A few things: there is not time enough in the world, and the pay for my blog reviews is just the smallest bit, um, paltry for such dedication, and my blog is meant to be a kind of leisure for me, not labour. Also, for the past 39 weeks (and maybe even longer) I’ve been so so tired, but yes, I’ve be thinking about how much gets missed. What if the key to any book’s brilliance is just to read it enough times, to study it deeply enough? Of course, I’ve read enough terrible books to know the fault isn’t always mine, that there are terrible books indeed, that taste counts for something, that there are books and then there is *this book* I’m reading and writing in right now and which makes me consider the infinite possibilities of literature.