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Pickle Me This

October 14, 2014

The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell

IMG_20141014_211718I was always going to love this book. Would have loved it for the cover alone, the colours, the jumbled shelves, even if it weren’t a celebration of bookshops, which are things I like to celebrate better than almost anything else. “Some Wonderful Things” is a collection of bookshop facts appearing every few pages throughout the book, and I adore any mindset that collects under such a designation. Under which the entire book should appear, probably, because it’s that good, a variable delight. The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell, which asserts that bookshops are here to stay and more excellent than ever, and such a vital part of communities and our reading and writing lives.

I dare you to read this book and not start planning trips around the world to the incredible bookshops featured within its pages—I’m already planning a trip to Silverdell Books in Kirkham, Lancashire, which is a bookshop/ice cream parlour; and how have I never been to Munro’s Books in Victoria BC; and a trip to Parnassus Books in Nashville has never been so necessary; and Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice is the most exquisite sight I’ve ever seen. Campbell shares short profiles of bookshops on six continents (because sadly, there’s not one on Antarctica yet). I do appreciate that at least one shop in the book is within walking distance, The Monkey’s Paw here in Toronto getting special treatment, and I want to go back to Re:Reading on the Danforth, in particular since I read that owner Christopher Sheedy rejigged his store’s layout to accommodate families with strollers (so nice!).

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More than just a travel guide, The Bookshop Book is a history too, of the history of bookshops in general and the stories of remarkable ones (which is most of them—including a bookshop on a boat, a bookshop without an address, a bookshop that only stocks one book, and many many more). Campbell talks to writers including Tracy Chavalier, Bill Bryson, Ian Rankin and Ali Smith about their bookshop thoughts.

Ali Smith: “If I owned my own bookshop? I remember when I first found a copy of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, a slim Penguin from the 1970s—you wouldn’t even notice it on a shelf. My bookshop would be full of those types of things: the books that, when you picked them up, you knew immediately that that was the book you were going to read that day. Moreover: whatever you’d been planning on doing, you’d just sit down with that book you’d picked up by chance and read that instead. The days when we sit down with a books o good we don’t get up until it’s read—those are some of the best days of our lives.”

IMG_20141014_211858The Bookshop Book made me think of my own bookshop stories: marvelling at The World’s Biggest Bookstore as a child, compulsive book buying at Nicholas Hoare the summer I spent the paycheques I should have been saving for university tuition, the Waterstones in Nottingham and having money after a long bout of poverty, Shakespeare and Company in Paris where my husband and I had our very first fight,  discovering Margaret Drabble at Wantage Books in Kobe, and when Harriet ate a sandwich she found on the ground under a table at the Waterstones in Edinburgh, The Grove Bookshop in Ilkley, an altogether delightful place. It made me think of the bookshop stories I’m passing onto my own children, the bookshop adventures we go on together, even though the destinations are getting rarer. But bookshops, this book and the voices within it assert, will never disappear altogether.

IMG_20141014_211908Unsurprisingly for a book that heralds places in which the book as object is their reason for existing, this book as an object is a most remarkable one. Hardcover, gorgeously designed, with two sections of colour photographs that make clear that these bookshop are as lovely as Campbell says they are. The prose is something else that falls under the category of “some wonderful things” and the whole thing is a delight to encounter, something I first intended just to dip in and out of, but I couldn’t help myself and read the whole thing. You will probably have a similar experience.

IMG_20141014_211930Want to know something really wonderful though? I’m in it. I’m even in the index (and yes, there is an index. In fact, there are two. Because this is the very bookish of books.) I wrote a small piece about my sadness at losing our beloved Book City last winter, which is included on page 176. And I appreciate that while Book City Annex is gone, my love for that place has been immortalized within The Bookshop Book, a most fitting place for such an ode. Good company too, and it’s an honour to be a part of project like this, celebrating places that are the best places in the world.

The Bookshop Book is out in the UK now. It’s coming out in Canada in the new year. Make sure you pick up a copy. This is definitely a book you will treasure.

September 23, 2014

Excellent Things

the-bookshopI have been hearing rumours for some time that Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels were to be issued with covers by my very favourite illustrator in the universe, Julie Morstad, and these rumours seem to have manifested into reality. I am so excited. Each of the covers is so intriguing and delightful, and I may have to end up owning every single one of them. Elsewhere, I adored the essay “Love Song to My Belly” in Brain, Child Magazine by Goldberry Long, who is the best writing teacher I have ever had. And closer to home, I got to see Caitlin Moran at the Toronto Reference Library last night, and she was wonderful, plus everyone I know was there, and I got to pick up a copy of her novel, How to Build a Girl, which I’m reading now and keeps making me guffaw, which makes everyone around me uncomfortable.

And a strange thing: I spent the weekend rereading the wonderful Chez L’Arab  by Mireille Silcoff for a review I’m writing for CNQ. I read it first a month ago, followed by Joan Thomas’s The Opening Sky. And found it odd that both books referenced the same zen koan, “No Water, No Moon.” So that was weird. But it gets even weirder, because upon rereading Silcoff’s collection, I was reminded that a character in the story not only reads the paragraph, but then goes on to encounter it in a podcast shortly after, the koan an uncanny echo in the story just as it was in my own experience. The connections between books and the wider world are so unfathomable.

September 19, 2014

Iris is the solution to everything

booksIris 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 9, 2014

In Which I Meme: Ten Books….

I don’t meme much. I don’t like memes. I like the internet best when everybody is doing her own thing, but I got tagged twice on Facebook, and I’ve been thinking for awhile about how I don’t know how to answer the question of what are my favourite books. For me, the books all blend together, their connections to each other and to the facts of my life all cumulating to pave the path of my progress. It’s not about the book but about the reading. I love books more than I love any one book. But I also love rereading, and so my list of books that have stayed with me (whatever that means—I think any book that’s any good would do such a thing) or a list of my favourites would be a list of books I’ve read more than once, and will continue to revisit to find out how they change as I do. They’re the books I’ll never get over being over.

  • bernadette-193x300Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple : Partly circumstantial—I read this in the hospital after Iris was born, and had a very visceral connection to everything was reading then, but I just loved it so completely. It was so funny, smart, and fresh, and I’ve been longing for a book to love this completely ever since. Will definitely reread.

 

  • slouchingSlouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion: I’ve read this book about six or seven times, and return to it to fall under the spell of the rhythm of Didion’s prose, and to admire the precision with which she arranges details in order of giving her stories the illusion of telling themselves.

 

  • waveWave by Sonali Deraniyagala: I was so afraid of this book, my worst nightmare, the story of a woman who loses her entire family in the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004. I finally obtained a library copy and was bowled over by the brilliance of the book, and so I had to buy my own copy. I haven’t reread it yet but I will. It’s a a heartbreaking tragedy, a litany of sorrows, but also beautiful, magical celebration of love and life.

 

  • radiantThe Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble: This was my first Margaret Drabble novel, which I bought at a used bookshop in Kobe. Had no idea what to expect, but fell in love with its writer, and the book too, for its vividness and how it reflected and engaged with the world.

 

 

  • Virginia-Woolf-LPTo the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf: The one book I’ve read more times than Slouching… and it just gets more and more profound and lovely. I read it most recently in July, having replaced my battered and stupidly marginalia’d university copy. It’s the thinking woman’s beach read.

 

  • crack-in-the-teacupThe Crack in the Teacup by Joan Bodger: I’ve read this one twice, and think about it all the time. It’s about being a woman in the 20th century, about loving books, about heartache, about this city. And about the life of an extraordinary woman who was of her time and also never quite, always in a way that was fascinating.

 

  • cats-eye-1Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood: (And also The Robber Bride). Of all the books on my list, I was youngest and stupidest when I first read these, but also so young that they became foundational in my understanding of the lives of girls and women.

 

 

  • kevinWe Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: This was one of those books I was never going to read, because I found all the hype at the time annoying, but I came to it somehow, and have read it five times since. I discover a whole new layer of complexity every time, and have determined that it’s just about marriage and womanhood as it is about motherhood. Also worth noting: still a gripping excellent reading when fully aware of its great twist, which is quite a literary feat.

 

  • museumBehind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson: I will never forget the moment of Ruby Lennox’s conception, which was also my introduction to the inimitable Kate Atkinson, whose boundless enthusiasm for pushing the limits of what a novel can do makes her one of my favourite authors. Have read this a few times. It contains the seeds of every single wonderful thing she’s written since.

 

  • unlessUnless by Carol Shields: I’m a bit of a zealot when it comes to this book, which I’ve read so many times that its pages are covered in scribbles, and whose subtle tricky complexity continues to amaze me.

*And don’t get me started on the children’s books, Anne of Green Gables, Tom’s Midnight Garden, Charlotte Sometimes, A Handful of Time, Booky, etc. Plus Flowers in the Attic. And so many more…

 

September 1, 2014

The Vacationers

vacationers-emma-straubShockingly, it was three whole long weekends ago (July 1!) that I spent a morning in bed drinking tea and reading The Vacationers by Emma Straub, which I enjoyed very much. If I remember correctly, I’d barely slept at all the night before that, thanks to Bad Iris, and this is not one bit shocking. But still, how fast the summer has gone by. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I constructed a salad out of marshmallows and Jello back in June, but this summer has been completely wonderful. Even the cool weather didn’t faze us—I sleep in an un-air-conditioned attic, after all. We had a week at our cottage, a long weekend camping, and a weekend away at my parents’, which was fun. We watched an outdoor movie. We finally managed a trip to the Toronto Islands, slipping in under the wire on Saturday. We went to the CNE today. There was plenty of ice cream all summer long, of course. Soccer and bike rides. Harriet was enrolled in two weeks of an afternoon art camp, and one week of full day camp, which made us never tire of the days we spent together. Even with the imperfect weather, we went swimming at the Christie Pits pool, and Harriet has acquired the requisite number of freckles on her nose.

I feel very lucky to be able to spend the summer with my children. Here is why I really feel lucky though—when Iris goes to sleep in the afternoons, Harriet sits down to watch a movie, and I lie down to write. And I did. At the end of June, I embarked upon a Summer Writing Marathon, which I didn’t have time for, but I never will have time, so why wait? I resolved to write 1000 words a day, and I did it (save for vacations).  On Friday, I logged in at 50,000 words. I’m on my way to writing a novel whose first draft will be completed by the end of September. And you might think that this is exciting, except, of course, this is the fifth time I’ve written a novel. But this is a first time I’ve written a novel that might be interesting, and also the first time that the process has been so exhilarating. So this has certainly been a summer highlight.

Harriet spent July watching Frozen, and then took up an obsession with Annie that has yet to abate. She has watched it near daily for the last month, which pleases me immensely, because it’s one of my all-time favourite films. I never get tired of it, and am pleased to have someone to sing all the songs with. She also talks about it incessantly, which has led to me thinking more deeply about Miss Hannigan, for example, than I ever thought I would. I am going to write a post about this one of these days…

Because of my writing marathon, I had to do all my other work in the evenings, which meant I didn’t read this summer as much as I would have liked (except for when we went away, and I read six books in seven days). And what I read, I didn’t write much about. I read Anthony de Sa’s Kicking the Sky, which I liked for its depiction of Toronto and for being not what I expected, but didn’t appreciate as much as I thought I would. I read Jane Rule’s Deserts of the Heart, whose depiction of a lesbian relationship in the 1960s was groundbreaking. I read Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson for my book club, which I didn’t love as much I thought I would, but led to such interesting discussion. And I read Letters to Omar by Rachel Wyatt, and we did an interview, which will be up here in a couple of weeks. There were a few others too (all good!), which I read for reviews that will be published elsewhere in the next while.

Harriet doesn’t start school until Thursday, so we have a couple more days of summer left. And I’m going to miss her when she goes, though I’m not going to tell her so, because when I did last year, she cried, so that definitely wasn’t my smoothest move.

August 21, 2014

Family Happiness

family-happinessI 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

Blanche Howard

memoirI 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

In which we encounter The Book Bike

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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).

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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.

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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

On Visiting Winnipeg

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We took care to visit Portage and Main, which was famous for something, but we couldn’t remember what.

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Then we encountered a horse.

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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.

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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.

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We had such a wonderful time.

April 13, 2014

Crossing to Safety

crossing-to-safetyMy 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.

Sarah explains:

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.

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The Art of Blogging runs Fall 2014 at UofT
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My book

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"If Life Gave Me Lemons" (short story) at Joyland
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"Helter Skelter" (short story) in TNQ 130
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"Rereading Fear of Flying" (personal essay) in The Toronto Review of Books
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