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.
May 1, 2013
We’ve come a long, long way, Suzanne Sutherland and I. We became familiar with one another after Harriet was born, and I used to the wander the neighbourhood in quiet desperation, baby strapped to my chest. Suzanne was bookseller supreme at my beloved local, one of the friendly faces that brightened my days back then. She liked to write, I knew, and I happened to be in the store the first time she received an acceptance to a literary magazine–I think it was Descant. She didn’t know I was editor of 49th Shelf when she started uploading amazing reading lists to the site, lists which confirmed that Suzanne Sutherland is undeniably cool (in addition to being lovely). Eventually, I became less desperate, Harriet got too big for her carrier, Suzanne got a book contract, and then moved on to a new job in editorial at Groundwood Books. I continue to adore the Book City staff, but I’ve never completely got over Suzanne leaving.
I’m overjoyed, however, to finally get my hands on her book, the YA novel When We Were Good. My experience of children’s literature is primarily through Harriet, and so I’m not so up on YA. But I do love Toronto books, so I was excited to read this one. More specifically, it’s a coming-of-age book about Toronto at the beginning of the new millennium, just when I was coming of age in the very same neighbourhoods, albeit quite belatedly (and truth be told, I’m still not done).
I am so pleased that my blurb appears on the book’s back cover (my name is on a book!!). It says, “Finally, the definitive Toronto novel for a new generation of readers. Suzanne Sutherland’s When We Were Good is an ode to the city, to music, and to falling in love.”
Check out Suzanne’s latest awesome list, Books That’ll Mess You Up Good.
April 29, 2013
My favourite response to my “Stick Rage” post at Bunch Family was the person who wrote, “Save it for your personal blog, Kerry Clare. Clearly, you’re about judgement and singling people out, not bringing families together.” I laughed. “Clearly, you’re about judgement…” Man, I thought, you don’t even know. Because I am all about judgement. Really. This is why some people find me amusing to converse with, and I don’t know that I’m so singular in this characteristic because the people I like to converse with are pretty “judgy” as well. In the best way, of course, by which I mean that they are funny, don’t suffer fools gladly, have ideas and opinions and no qualms about expressing them.
This may be why I’ll never make it as a parenting blogger. “The world is so judgemental already. Let’s stop judging. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and actions.” This was a comment on a recent post at the blog Playground Confidential, and when I read it, I thought (and judged), “How positively uninteresting it must be to go about the world with that perspective.” I am troubled by this idea that women in particular must amass whilst cooing soft noises of mutual support and approval, because who actually does this? (Speaking of parenting blogs, I am also troubled by the sheer number of people who pass their lives by littering the the internet with sponsored blog posts about how much their domestic lives are assisted by Hamburger Helper, but that’s a judgement for another day.) Sure, everyone is indeed entitled to their opinions and actions (but no! even this isn’t true!) but therefore aren’t I perfectly entitled to find you an asshole, or an idiot? I’m even entitled to say as much. And you’re more than welcome to judge right back, but please don’t do so on the basis of me being judgemental because it’s an awfully terribly tiresome feedback loop and I don’t even care.
What bothers me the most about this whole “Let’s stop judging” approach is its dishonesty. It is a rare person who ever really pulls this off, and the rest of us are just whispering judgements to our friends behind your back. I’m not sure this is necessarily kinder than making pronouncements aloud. Now of course, to judge and to be vicious are not necessarily the same thing and the distinction between the two is important. But it’s a eye of the beholder thing, really, and haven’t we talked about this in terms of book reviewing a hundred thousand times? I’ve tried to work around this as a book reviewer by not reading or reviewing books I know I’m programmed to respond to with judgement instead of an open mind. It’s not worth my time, and neither the world’s to pollute it with my vitriol (this post and the one about stick families, of course, excluded. And can you tell that I am nine months pregnant? I have never been such a judger-naut! Or used so many italics!).
So this is the reason that I haven’t read Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska, though certainly it’s a book I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. As someone who has made a thing of writing honestly about motherhood and expressing the truth of my own difficult experiences with its early days, certainly I’m intrigued by Bydlowska’s project and by my own ambivalent response to it. And I was also intrigued by Sarah Hampson’s interview with Bydlowska, which dared to pose difficult questions and not just those that had been approved by Bydlowsk’s publicist. The interview was interesting, which is more than you can say about the interviews with her that have appeared elsewhere with their polite questions and predictable answers. I’m not even sure that it was journalistically troubling, because good interviewers are always very much a character in the story they’re telling. The problem, I suppose, would be if Hampson had been dishonest with Bydlowska in their conversation, had hoodwinked her somehow, but it shouldn’t be a problem that Hampson was honest in how she responded to the book. This book for which Bydlowska’s own honesty and bravery have been so celebrated; why is another writer meant to just shut up and be polite?
I similarly appreciated Lisan Jutras’ review of the book in The Globe on Saturday. I didn’t find the review to be judgemental, but found instead that Jutras approached the book (as well as her response to it) with questions instead of conclusions (and herein is the distinction between a critical review and a cruel one, I think), that she broadened the conversation, which is precisely what a book review is meant to do. (More italics. I can’t stop). She questions this reflexive response of terming female memoirists as “brave”, she questions her own fascination with Bydlowska’s story and her discomfort with this.
“I’m torn about this book,” is something that somebody wrote to me the other day, and I’m having trouble discerning how any reader could not be. It is a troubling, fascinating book that is worthwhile for the questions it raises, I think, and I find it odd that we would judge anybody for asking them. To ask those questions is not to be lacking in compassion, but it’s to be curious about a book, about the world. (I also think the whole, “But the reviewer doesn’t even mention the prose style” is a little disingenuous. Drunk Mom is not about its prose, or at least its marketers don’t think it is, so I think we can be forgiven for not playing along with that game. Very few of us stare at car accidents for aesthetic reasons. I also recognize that this book is meant to be intended to help and support those suffering from addiction, but then what are we meant to do with it, those of us who aren’t undergoing such struggles? Other than not read it. A book has to exist on its own terms and be more than a life preserver.)
Bydlowska is in no way unique for being a woman who has been publicly rebuked for her mothering skills. Just yesterday, I read the fantastic essay “The Meaning of White” by Emily Urquhart about her experience as a mother whose child was born with albinism, and I was aghast by the rage expressed in the comments: apparently Urquhart is hijacking her daughter’s story, is ableist, is making something out of nothing, is a white supremacist. There is something troubling about this mass jumping on the hate-train that almost makes me want to rethink my so-called judgy life, but then I’ve gone and judged already–we already know that internet commenters are morons anyway and are really none of anyone’s concern, not mine, nor Emily Urquhart’s, or Jowita Bydlowska’s either.
My point is that when you tell your story, people are allowed not to like it. And when that story is you, judgement is going to come into play when people don’t like it, even if you do something shrewd like decide your book is an “autobiographical novel”. “The main character in this book is a such a kind of person and what is the author’s intention in representing herself this way” is a legitimate line of thinking to pursue for a reader/critic, [albeit not a great basis for critical assessment] but we’re all avoiding that conversation for fear of being impolite. We’re avoiding so many conversations for the sake of politeness, actually, and I’m not sure our books are any better for it. I’d far rather read an honest review that posed provocative questions than one that sang the praises of bravery as a singular reason for any book to be.
March 14, 2013
I am a little too excited about my latest blog post at 49th Shelf, which is a list of Fictitious Can-Lit: The Books that Never Were. I’ve made a list of fictitious books mentioned in several Canadian novels, cribbed book descriptions, and Stuart created book covers to accompany each one. Check out the post, and see how many of these books-in-books you’re familiar with.
I’m also very excited about the Orange Prize longlist. I rarely read books based upon such nominations but I am also happy to have my own tastes confirmed when the books I’ve read already turn up on these lists. And with the Orange Prize, which is of course Orange no longer, but alas, my own tastes are confirmed more than with any other award. I haven’t read Kate Atkinson’s new one yet (I have pre-ordered it from my local, and waiting for the release day. New Kate Atkinson is an event, you see…), but am glad to see it there. And I have read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, Emily Perkins’ The Forrests, and Zadie Smith’s NW, and they were among my top reads of 2012. Though I’m rooting for The Forrests in particular, because it’s a book that deserves so much more attention.