August 21, 2014
I reread Laurie Colwin last week, the novel, Family Happiness. And I am still thinking about “chicklit” (a term I dislike, because I’d never actually call a human person a “chick”) and how I’ve changed my mind about it. The problem with chicklit, I used to think, was that so much of it was shallow and silly and that important books kept being undermined by being shushed away into that category. I used to agree with authors who’d protest that any book about women and relationships was automatically written off as “chicklit”, and also that it was a travesty how women’s fiction was always pushed to the margins. I wrote an entire essay about this, which referenced the line from Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.”
I still think that it’s true that women’s fiction gets pushed to the margins, but I’ve recently realized that this has nothing to do with chicklit. I have recently determined, in the past few weeks as I’ve reread To the Lighthouse, and Family Happiness, and as I’m reading Caroline Adderson’s new novel, Ellen in Pieces, right this very minute* (nearly) that there is indeed a way to write about women and relations, to write women’s fiction (for I emphatically believe that there is such a thing, and that literature is all the better for it) that will never be confused for chicklit ever.
The key, of course, is to subvert readers’ expectations, to resist the formula from which chicklit is concocted. I’m thinking about Laurie Colwin, especially, whose subversion is oh-so-subtle that undiscerning readers might miss it, but it’s there. It’s not to resist happy endings, necessarily, but to acknowledge that happiness is complicated, and endings are only relative. Colwin’s writing doesn’t hinge on “issues” or crises to propel her plots, and some might protest that Laurie Colwin doesn’t plot at all (just as Jennifer Weiner** took down Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs for not having a driving plot, for failing to conform to chicklit’s basic requirements, as if that somehow makes it less of a book). Indeed, her books are full of upper-middle-class women sitting on lush sofas wearing exquisite worn cardigans and turning their minds over and over again. There is pages of this. And I love it. There are no villains. Everybody is just conflicted and deeply flawed, and when they run into one another, things happen (and those things are often further conversations).
Colwin walks this narrow line between light and substance, and I think the effect of lightness comes from so much visual light—illumination, brightness, joy—and this is far from the same thing as shallow. She has been compared to Jane Austen, which I agree with, but I’m not nuts about Jane Austen, so I’m conflicted. I have this suspicion that if I came at it the other way though—reading Jane Austen with a view to her being a bit like Laurie Colwin—I could come to a new appreciation. Either way, Laurie Colwin isn’t chicklit, even though her characters are neurotic and wear specific shoes. They’re books without a template, my vague Austen references aside. Immediately readable, but as with Woolf and Adderson (though on a more subtle level), Colwin is trying to push the novel to be something more, beyond its own limits, to get life to fit inside.
How do you tell a story about the many sides of happiness? Of love?
There is a place for formulaic books, and they certainly have their legions of readers, though I no longer count myself among them. (This isn’t true. I love detective fiction. But maybe the difference is that the very formula for detective fiction is to surprise its readers. As with the best of literary fiction, you rarely known who’s going to come around the next corner.) I just don’t have the patience anymore for a book that’s going to turn out exactly as I expect. I read that book already. I want the unfamiliar, which can be breezy (Maria Semple, Laurie Colwin) or more dense (Adderson, Woolf), or a thousand other things, but it isn’t chicklit, which reduces women and their lives to types and tropes. Whose very trademarks are endings that are always going to be tidy.
“I just have a very hard time seeing entertainment as a bad thing,” said Jennifer Weiner in her interview with Rebecca Mead. But just because something isn’t a bad thing doesn’t make it literature.
*This sentence was true on Saturday, when I wrote it.
**It occurs to me now that the two books by Jennifer Weiner I enjoyed most were Fly Away Home and Goodnight Nobody, both of which were probably her most formula defiant. And maybe her point is that nobody noticed these distinctions, so she gave up even trying, which is why “[i]n later novels, she decided to ‘give my characters the thing that none of us get, which is the promise that it’s going to be O.K.’”
*** Also, speaking of worn-out templates, I basically wrote about this exact same thing two years ago. I am not sure why I can’t just get over it, but then again, I’m not the only one.
June 15, 2014
I was sad today to hear the news of Blanche Howard’s death at the age of 90. I knew Howard best through her extraordinary collection of letters with Carol Shields, which I read for the first time in a hammock in 2007, and a second time a few years later. I’d also read her novel, Penelope’s Way, and Celibate Season, the collaborative novel she published with Shields in the 1990s. When she and Shields began corresponding in the 1970s, it was actually Howard who’d been the most experienced writer of the two, generously providing the novice Shields with advice as the latter embarked upon the publication of her first book. An extraordinary friendship would grow between the two of them, and Howard’s characteristic generosity continued as she shared their letters with readers in A Memoir of Friendship. (Generosity was a trait both friends had in common.) The letters are a remarkable documentation of the course of women’s lives–the joys and trials of motherhood, the better and worse of marriage, the pains and injustice of aging. Their discussions of feminism and politics were illuminating and important. And so too their stories of the writing life.
Shields was a very special writer, and entirely deserving of her good fortune, but she did strike literary gold with The Stone Diaries, which took the world by storm and everything she touched ever after seemed to turn to gold. This was not necessarily always going to be her destiny (though, as a reader of the letters will note, her success did not seem to change her a bit). Howard, on the other hand, had more of a struggle, starting off strong with her novels in the 1970s, then her books went out of print, and while she never stopped writing, it would be years before her next book was published (in addition to A Celibate Season). She self-published an e-book in 2010.
This is a far more typical story than Shields’, a familiar trajectory for most writers who do not go on to win the Pulitzer. Howard’s story was a lesson in endurance, persistence, and optimism. In writing for the love of it. In growing old but staying sharp, learning and growing all the while. (It’s a lesson in courage too–Howard bore loss of her husband after years of Alzheimer’s Disease and the demands of his caregiving.) In our society, we’re not always interested in hearing from women later in their lives, as Howard’s failure to secure a publishing contract would attest. It’s a difficult world out there, but it’s even harder for a woman with grey hair. Hard work is not always necessarily rewarded.
And yet, there is something in the struggle, which is what I learned from Howard. This is what life is after all. To reach but never quite make it. The striving is an achievement though, and it shapes a life, makes it rich with experience and vision. It is certainly not an ordinary life. Hers was a way of truly being in the world, and I so admire that. It’s so important for us to have these kind of examples of the kind of women we might grow to be, women with strength, and dignity. A life rich in friendship. Truly, she made a mark on the world, and her loss will be felt by her readers and the people who knew her.
(Thanks to Allyson Latta who shared the news of Howard’s death, as well as an essay she’d written called The Stories We Tell.)
June 10, 2014
The neatest thing I’ve come across lately is the Meatlocker Editions Book Bike, which was at the Bloor Street Festival on Sunday. It’s true that if you put up a red sign that says “Books”, I will be on of the many curious people who come flocking, and my curiosity was more than satiated by what I found. The Book Bike is a community library on wheels, a very mobile way celebrate books and reading. The Book Bike turns up at community events and flocking readers are invited to take a book or leave one (and they are interested in larger book donations too–just drop them a line).
In addition to pedalling books around the city, Meatlocker Editions are also in the business of inspiring readers and writers through various projects, including workshops and publications. Their focus is supporting young women writers, a most inspiring response to the under-represenation of women’s voices in literary spheres.
There were some very cool small press gems on display on the Book Bike. I was quite thrilled to get a copy of Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule, which Karen Hofmann recently included on her “Barefoot Girls and Wild Women” list.
All in all, a most spectacular encounter. Go MLE!
May 20, 2014
I only knew Winnipeg through books, by Miriam Toews and Carol Shields and others, and so I had literary expectations of the city and it didn’t disappoint me. And the Winnipeg books I know were newly imagined in my mind as we drove along Winnipeg’s streets, streets whose winter had removed all road markings, as we visited so many of the city’s neighbourhoods, a literary map come to life. I’d been checking out the official site of Tourism Winnpeg too, and they really do a terrific job of selling the city and I began to be sorry we weren’t staying for a week. We were only staying for two nights, a day and a half. We decided to pack our schedule quite full.
We had the best flight ever (the baby slept, I read a book, and sipped a [terrible, but I won't quibble] cup of tea). Some people might have supposed that flying with two children was something to be worried about, but those people evidently didn’t remember our disastrous flight to England last fall. This time, no one threw up, I didn’t lose our passports in Amsterdam, and we landed it two hours. In comparison, our journey to Winnipeg was like a week at a luxury resort.
In Winnpeg, nothing is located very far away from anything else. This means that we were able to get off the plane and be playing at the Nature Playground at Assiniboine Park within the hour.
And already, we were awash in literary references as we encountered the Winnie the Pooh Statue (the bear having been named for the city, naturally.)
The next morning, we visited the Carol Shields Memorial Labyrinth at Kings Park. I wasn’t sure it would be all that impressive without foliage, but turns out I don’t really know labyrinths. Tracing its paths was twisty, wonderful and full of surprises. It felt very emotional being there and being able to connect with the spirit of a writer whose work means so much to me (and whose words are the epigraph to the essay in the book I was visiting the city in promotion of).
Here is a photo of Harriet, Iris and I at the centre of the labyrinth. I was also moved by Shields’ own words which are etched into granite gates nearby, the granite in reference to her The Stone Diaries.
I was also excited to visit the Carol Shields Project Bookmark Plaque in Osborne Village, which makes reference to her novel, The Republic of Love.
And then later that afternoon, we encountered another literary landmark when we saw Kerry Ryan’s poems installed outside her boxing club in The Exchange neighbourhood. The poems are from her extraordinary collection, Vs. And the neighbourhood looked more liked New York City than anywhere else I’ve ever been.
We took care to visit Portage and Main, which was famous for something, but we couldn’t remember what.
Then we encountered a horse.
A highlight was the whole family hanging out in CBC Green Room as we waited for my radio interview. It was a pretty cool experience.
And then our wonderful launch that night at the extraordinary McNally Robinson Bookstore, where we were so welcomed and enjoyed a delicious dinner before the reading. And a quick shopping spree too. For it is impossible to visit a literary city like Winnipeg without coming away with a book or two. Or three.
We had such a wonderful time.
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”