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January 29, 2021

Sometimes You Have to Lie, by Leslie Brody

While Harriet M. Welsch put the truth in her notebooks, Louise Fitzhugh, who created her, kept her own truth closer to her chest, and it stayed guarded for years ever after, her literary executors and friends fiercely protective of the author. An academic book was published in 1991 that did provide some insight into the life and times of Fitzhugh, but its author was not granted proper access to archives and the book was kind of middling, and so we’ve had to wait all the way until now for a proper literary biography, Sometimes You Have to Lie, by Leslie Brody, whose previous work as biographer includes a book about Jessica Mitford, so you just know this is the kind of work you want to get behind.

Louise Fitzhugh’s story is pretty wild, and also sad. Her mother was a dancer and her father was a millionaire. They met on a transatlantic crossing in the 1920s, marrying in a whirlwind, and the whole thing was a terrible idea. Their daughter, Louise, suffered in the fallout, subject of a much publicized custody conflict, which her father won, and prohibited her mother from seeing her for years. Essentially raised by nursemaids, Fitzhugh grew up privileged in the Jim Crow South, and was well aware of the injustice that surrounded her. Also, much like Harriet, she seemed to always know exactly who she was, dating women while still in high school and not caring a fig for social convention.

Like many before her, she fled to New York City, seeking a creative life. She found success as a painter, but such success is relative—it’s a tough life, even for an heiress. She found her way into publishing by illustrating a picture book, Suzuki Beane, written by Sandra Scoppettone, a satire of the Eloise books set in beatnik Greenwich Village, and then eventually a few very rough pages of what would become Harriet the Spy found their way to Ursula Nordstrom, legendary editor of authors like EB White, Maurice Sendak, Margaret Wise Brown, and more.

Fitzhugh was not a people-pleaser, although she was well-liked and had a lot of friends, connected to many through artistic and lesbian circles. But it’s hard out there for a sensitive person, and she struggled to fit into most roles that were assigned to her, children’s book author among them. She refused to do publicity for her books. She had fallings out with her editors. She had trouble with her health, and didn’t heed doctors’ advice to stop drinking. And then in 1974, she published the novel Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, received a devastating review in Publisher’s Weekly, and then died. It was a brain aneurysm and possibly the two events were unrelated, but still. Honestly, it’s the kind of blunt conclusion that would come out of Harriet’s notebook. (“MY MOTHER IS ALWAYS SAYING PINKY WHITEHEAD’S WHOLE PROBLEM IS HIS MOTHER. DOES HIS MOTHER HATE HIM? IF I HAD HIM I’D HATE HIM.”)

I loved this book. Fitzhugh’s life was as fascinating as her work, just as complicated too and tricky to parse, and Brody really does her justice.

April 20, 2016

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, by Cordelia Strube

on-the-shores-of-darkness-there-is-lightEver since 1964, writers whose protagonists are eleven-year-old girls called Harriet have been taking a serious chance on things. How can one actually pull that off that kind of literary homage? But Cordelia Strube, whose many books include the 2010 Giller-nominated novel Lemon (which was one of my favourite books that year) has absolutely pulled it off. Her Harriet, in On the Shores of Darkness There is Light, is a many-splendored, singular creation, and the novel goes and goes and never falters.

Harriet lives in an apartment building called the Shangrila, once a luxury high-rise but now a place housing mostly downtrodden seniors and her family since they lost their home in the 2008 economic downturn. Her mother is trying to keep them afloat through under-the-table bookkeeping, with no help from Gennady, her broke criminal lawyer boyfriend in Crocs, or Harriet’s father Trent, avid cyclist who lives with Uma who he met at the farmer’s market and who is currently in the middle of an IVF cycle. And then there is Irwin, Harriet’s five-year-old brother who has hydrocephalous and whose traumatic entrance to the world brought forth the end of Harriet’s parents’ marriage and all semblances of stability in her life. His health remains perilous, with frequent seizures and hospital visits, ever a source of anxiety and preoccupation for their mother, leaving Harriet with a preponderance of freedom that she exploits for her own devices.

Dumpster-diving for materials for her found art projects, charging her elderly neighbours for runs to the convenience store, and hanging out with her teenage neighbour, Darcy, and losing her scattered grandmother at the Scarborough Town Centre, Harriet has her own agenda, which ultimately involves her dream of escaping it all and getting away to a rural retreat far away in Algonquin Park, living alone by a lake and painting much like Tom Thomson did. A playwright, Strube has an ear for dialogue, and the novel is enlivened by conversation by the people all around Harriet, from confused senior citizens to forthright angry teens, and we see all the information contained within these throwaway lines being filtered through Harriet’s precocious but still eleven-year-old brain and how they come to inform her view of the world. The connections she makes between her father’s obsession with cycling and her stepmother’s IVF cycle, for example, or how a diatribe from the malicious Gennady becomes the title of a sculpture she creates called “The Leopard Who Changed Her Spots.” In a subtle fashion, this is very much a novel that is preoccupied with language, by words, and the puzzles of what things really mean.

As in her previous work, Strube is unafraid to portray adults as a ragtag collection of lost souls and idiots. (This is another feature this novel shares with the collected works of Louise Fitzhugh.) That such folks are responsible for the care of vulnerable people is always a terrifying thing for those people to discover, and On the Shores of Darkness… is about that loss of innocence, the realization that none of us are really ever safe, and that our parents are as vulnerable as we are. “I want you to get better, but I don’t want to be blamed,” admits Harriet’s mother at one point regarding her son’s unhappiness, which is indicative of every adult’s failure in this book to take responsibility for his or her own actions, for their own life. “All of this has been very hard on me,” so say the grown-ups in relation to their children’s hardships, over and over again.

At nearly 400 pages, the novel is long, but swiftly paced and never dull. The bleakness of its considerations are broken up with incredible humour, from the cacophony of the voices in its background to the sheer audacity of Harriet herself, her nerve, all the things she is willing to do and say. There is a humour too in the contrast between the child’s point of view and the world around her, and—in the case of Harriet’s friend, Darcy, in particular—the person she is trying to to be. The sheer naïveté of these would-be old souls. Darcy likes to go on about, “that Caitlin whore,” a friend from her old neighbourhood, and we learn about what Caitlin did to her at Guides: “I was a Sprite and she was a Pixie. That ho bag made like all the cool girls were Pixies….Then the skank fucked up my puppetry badge.”

There is a twist two thirds of the way into the novel that is absolutely devastating and potentially crazy-making, but Strube manages to make the final section work with the introduction of a new character, a young girl who underlines the novel’s Fitzhugh ties  by her determination to be a detective, carrying a magnifying glass and clues jotted in a notebook even. And while the novel veers dangerously toward sentimentality as it heads to its conclusion, Strube shows just enough restraint, and manages an impeccable ending, one that brings its pieces together, steady as the beat of a heart.

February 25, 2014

On Living With Harriet the Spy #Harriet50th

harriet(See Harriet the Spy Celebrates 50 Years of Sleuthing).

I never read Harriet the Spy when I was a child, and to be honest, I’m not sure I would have been sophisticated enough to appreciate it if I had. There are subtleties at work in the novel, a subversion I might not have been comfortable with. Instead, I loved The Long Secret, the lighter, sunnier Harriet novel. In The Long Secret, Harriet’s father is always home, and doesn’t say “rat fink” once. It’s Beth Ellen’s novel, the girl they call “Mouse”, and really, this novel is subversive too. I was just too stupid to know. Beth Ellen, like Harriet, can wield the power of the pen, but that’s the secret. I loved the map in the book, tracing my finger along its paths and roads. I never owned the book, but The Long Secret is one I borrowed from the school library over and over again. It acknowledged that people could be ugly, and I appreciated that. (Of course, I own a copy now.)

(See Lizzie Skurnick on The Long Secret)

I didn’t read Harriet the Spy until I was 28, and I couldn’t remember why I did, but a search through my blog archives reveals that it was the internet’s fault (and isn’t everything). In 2008, I found an article on Harriet the Spy (via Steph at Crooked House), and it was only then that I realized that Harriet had not been a girl-sleuth solving boring neighbourhood mysteries, but had in fact been a writer.  So I finally met Harriet in her original form, and was besotted. The novel was a guide to life, a guide to how to write and be a writer, and guides to such things were important to me in 2008, when I was just a year out of grad school with my writing career going nowhere at all. And that character–she was everything I love about everyone that I love best. She was the best and worst parts of me as well, and I adored her unabashedness.

“When I have a daughter, I am going to call her Harriet.” I remember telling my husband this news in the waiting room at our dentist’s, and lucky for me, he likes most of my ideas, and this was no exception.

long-secretHarriet was born in May 2009, and right away, I saw where I’d gone a bit wrong. All these spirited heroines are very nice to dream of, but to have to live with them is a whole other matter. To have to be the person whose job it is to teach Harriets civility, or at least enough to get by–can you believe that I signed up for that? But we’re figuring it out, and so is she, and she really is everything I dreamed of her being when I first dreamed of my own Harriet seven years ago. She loves books, has a vivid imagination, swears too much and is often rude, has a jam-smeared face and messy hair, makes up great stories, is full of faults, is absolutely perfect, and fierce as all get-out. She’s the kind of girl I want to see in the world. She’s worthy of being a Harriet namesake. It might have been easier to name her Beth Ellen, but would probably have been less fun.

Last summer we read Harriet the Spy. Our Harriet had just turned 4 and was much too young, but she was eager to read the book she’d been named for, and I wanted her to hear it too. And I think most of the book went over her head, but she never complained of being bored (and believe me, she would have if she were). As I read aloud, I noted to myself that this was the first book I’d ever read her that contained the word gestapo, and fortunately, she didn’t ask for clarification. I would have told her, but it might have interrupted the flow of the book.

As we were reading the book, Harriet found a notebook of her own, and took to going around scribbling in it. That she didn’t know how to write as much as her name at the time to my Harriet was no deterrent.

It’s a complicated legacy, Harriet the Spy. To give it to a daughter is to open a can of worms, and yet it also contains almost everything a daughter will ever need to know.  About character: the sense of self and strength of conviction I wish for her, for one. I want her to know the power of her own voice. Harriet is a good way to learn how to be a woman. And yes, I want her to learn the lessons that Harriet learns too–that indeed, people can be ugly. People can be horrible, but you don’t have to tell them. That we go wrong when we always privilege the truth–sometimes you have to lie. People are rotten and sometimes you have to lie, but also the world is fascinating, full of things to be seen, and you just have to pay attention. Stories are everywhere. Stories are also everything, and happiness and freedom can only come when yours belongs to you. 

September 18, 2012

Mr. King's Things by Genevieve Cote

I cannot really claim any objectivity in my adoration of Genevieve Cote’s new book Mr. King’s Things, because a character in it was named after my daughter, which is certainly some kind of conflict of interest. I met Genevieve in 2008 on a rather glorious adventure, and we’ve kept in touch ever since, our bond cemented over a mutual love of teapots (she puts them in all her books!) and my admiration for her work. I was 4 months pregnant with Harriet when she signed me a copy of What Elephant?, and since then, Genevieve’s books have made up a beloved corner of our library: her companion books Me and You and Without You, and also The Lady of Shalott. And we’re especially in love with Mr. King’s Things, which arrived in our mailbox yesterday, dedicated, “For the REAL Harriet.”

Mr. King is a cat (with a crown) who is fond of buying stuff. When he returns from his shopping excusions, laden with bags and bags of price-tagged goods, he gets rid of his old things by throwing them into a nearby pond. Gone for good, he supposes, but then one day his things return to haunt him in a terrifying way. With the help of his friends (including a small pink owl called Harriet who goes surfing on a paint pallette), Mr. King realizes the error of his ways and learns how old things can be made new.

This book particularly delights me as it contains the line, ‘”A jumble sale!” cries Harriet. “I love jumble sales!”‘ I am not sure that Genevieve deliberately placed a Barbara Pym reference in her picture book, though with the thing she has for teapots, it might not entirely surprise me.

Harriet seems to not think it so remarkable that a character in a book has been named after her, though when you’re 3 years-old, you’re pretty much blase about everything that isn’t a firetruck. Harriet loves the book though, and I’ve read it over and over. Genevieve Cote’s work is as enchanting as ever.

May 9, 2012

And why pray tell should Harriet be invited to join our group?

This is perfect. Thanks to Patricia for the link!

September 26, 2010

Books, I've had a few. Regrets? Not lately.

I went out by myself on Saturday m0rning to check out The Victoria College Book Sale (whose half-price Monday is tomorrow, for anyone who’s interested). The plan, seeing as I have far more unread books that I have money, was to purchase a book or two, which was quite a different plan than in years past when I’ve purchased a book or twenty. Plan was also different than in the past, because I was attending on a full-price Saturday, having noticed in the past year or two that the Monday books are usually the same. And am I ever glad that I made the switch, because the books I came home with are absolutely wonderful, albeit slightly more numerous than two. (“But think of all the books I didn’t buy,” I pleaded as I walked in the door, so bookisly laden.)

Not one of the books I bought is aspirational and due just to collect dust on the shelf, or a book I’m unlikely to enjoy a great deal. I put much thought into my purchases, and just as much into the books I didn’t buy, and I’m happy with what I settled upon. I am extremely excited to dig into each of these.

I got Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, because it’s the Peter Wimsey novel that introduces Harriet Vane, and I’ve been led to expect fine things from it. I got True Lies by Mariko Tamaki, because she intrigues me and because it was radically mis-catalogued, and so it was fate that I found it at all. Next is Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark, because reading The Comforters is only the beginning of my Muriel Spark career. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns, which I know nothing about, except that a few other bloggers have read it, I like the title, and I’m fond of that Virago apple. Sloane Crosley I Was Told There Would Be Cake, because I can’t get enough of essays, it comes well-recommended (and there’s cake). Carol Shields’ play Departures and Arrivals, because unread Carol Shields is a precious, precious thing. Bronwen Wallace’s collection People You’d Trust Your Life To, just because it felt like the right book to buy. Michael Winter’s This All Happened because it is shocking that I haven’t read it yet. And finally, Jessica Grant’s collection Making Light of Tragedy, because she wrote Come Thou Tortoise and I’ve heard this book is even better.

Can you believe that discretion was actually exercised? Unbelievable, I know. Less so was exercised today at the Word on the Street Festival, where I purchased a fantastic back issue of The New Quarterly (the quite rare Burning Rock Collective Issue 91), and the Giller-longlisted Lemon by Cordelia Strube. Harriet also got to peek through the Polka Dot Door, and meet Olivia the Pig, and there were also a lot of dogs and balloons, which are two of her favourite things.

In other remarkable this weekend news, someone who was neither Stuart nor me put Harriet to bed last night, because I’d blown the dust off my high heels for our friends Kim and Jon’s wedding. We had the most wonderful time, not least because it was within walking distance (even in said high heels). The ceremony was lovely, the bride was stunning, groom was adoring, the venue was incredible (overlooking Philosopher’s Walk, with a view of the city skyline), great company, delicious dinner, too much wine, and then we got to dance, and had so much fun looking ridiculous. We walked home after midnight happy and holding hands, and I could hardly detect an autumn chill while wearing Stuart’s too-big-for-me jacket.

February 8, 2010

Reading in bed

January 29, 2010

Family Literacy Field Trip: To Mabel's Fables

So it turns out there is a Mabel, and she is a ginger cat. And the place she lives is pure magic, with a bright pink door, and two floors of BOOKS! Upstairs there is a gigantic teddy bear and a princess chair, and downstairs are the books for little kids and babies, upstairs for the bigger ones, and there are even books for adults on the landing.

But perhaps the very best thing about Mabel’s Fables, the wonderful children’s bookstore in Toronto, is that Rebecca Rosenblum lives around the corner. So that we got to go to her house for lunch first, and she accompanied us on our first Mabel’s Fables visit. (I’ve never been before because the store is not on the subway, and I have this impression that anywhere not on the subway is really far away. Turns out that it isn’t.)

Harriet was pleased to be liberated from the snowsuit and seemed impressed by her surroundings. I was pleased to see so many of our favourite books and others I’d been coveting, and stuff I’d never heard of by the same authors, and a space that was such a celebration of childhood and children’s books. We ended up getting our friend Geneviève Côté’s new book Me and You, which is a gorgeous celebration of friendship, individuality and art. We also got The Baby’s Catalogue board book by the Ahlbergs, because we love Peepo and Each Peach Pear Plum, and even though this isn’t a story book, it’s full of cool stuff for us to look at together and talk about, and there’s a breastfeeding baby inside (and you really can’t go wrong with breastfeeding in picture book art, oh no!).

Our final purchase was Sandra Boynton’s Bath Time!, because Harriet loves bath books and we like Barnyard Bath very much already. All in all, it was a very successful shop, and you can see here that Harriet very much enjoyed herself. These photos were taken during a span of about thirty seconds, as I tried to get her to smile for the camera but she proceeded to just pluck books off the shelf and chew on them. I wrenched them away from her eventually– I’m assuming Mabel’s Fables operates on a “you chew it, you buy it” policy, understandably. “Come on,” I said, pulling her away from the nummy bookish delights. “You’ve got plenty of books to chew on at home. ” But I must admit to admiring her appetite!

January 23, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

In Alan Bradley’s novel The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, our heroine, eleven year-old Flavia de Luce opines that, “Heaven must be a place where the library is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.” So that it occurs to me that heaven must also be a narrator like Flavia de Luce, who is perfectly precocious in all the right places and suitably limited in others. The latter point being particularly important, because Flavia is the first fictional detective I’ve ever encountered who solved the crimes slower than I did. Not that she’s stupid, oh no, not Our Lady of the Periodic Table of Elements, but hers is a refreshing perspective when her youth shows through.

And yes, in this, she’s much like Harriet the Spy. Or rather, Flavia is a tribute to Harriet, though I wonder how consciously? At first glance, the connections could be coincidental. Flavia is sleuthy, and keeps a notebook, and that she’s charged with the spirit of her late Mother, who was called Harriet. This last point I doubt Alan Bradley means for us to interpret as Flavia being of Harriet (M. Welch) born, mostly because I don’t think male readers identify with Harriet that strongly. (And this, by the way, I’d love to be wrong about).

But I encounter the following paragraph: “I was me. I was Flavia. And I loved myself, even if no one else did.” And I can’t help but think that Bradley was channeling his inner-Fitzhugh after all.

Flavia lives Buckshaw, a grand home outside the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Her eccentric father scarcely pays her attention, her older sisters torture her mercilessly, the entire household lives under a shroud of sadness from her mother’s death, but Flavia contents herself mixing poisonous concoctions in her chemistry lab at the top of the house. When a dead bird lands on the doorstep, however, with a postage stamp stuck through its beak, and then then a body turns up in the cucumber bed in the garden, Flavia is aware that life is about to get interesting for the very first time. And when her father is arrested with murder, she becomes all the more determined to solve the crime herself and clear his name.

Bradley writes Flavia tongue-in-cheek, his novel a send-up of detective fiction, but he manages to create a rather intriguing mystery all the same. Involving philately, libraries, English reticence, postmistresses– a whole host of infinitely nerdy pleasures. A whimsical book, Bradley writes gorgeous turns of phrase to match– my favourite was when Flavia steps into her dead mother’s long-undisturbed bedroom and feels as though she were “an umbrella remembering what it feels like to pop open in the rain.”

The Sweetness in the Bottom of the Pie is a book built on a the back of other books, on the back of a whole literary tradition, and its charm lies in its references to a world already much beloved. The connections it draws and its own twisty plot make for a deliciously readable delight.

December 4, 2009

Laying down among the tea cups

“At which point the much-tried Wimsey lay down among the tea cups and became hysterical.”

I am adoring Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, which I’m reading because I’m interested in literary Harriets (Harriet Vane, in this case) and because of Maureen Corrigan’s recommendation. At first, I supposed Corrigan having given away the ending might have ruined the experience, but it hasn’t actually– the thing about detective fiction is that even if you know the final piece of the puzzle, it doesn’t matter until the rest of it is put together.

I do find it remarkable how difficult the book is, however. I thought there would be something of a breeze about it, and maybe it’s just that I’m incredibly tired, but there are entire passages I don’t understand no matter how I try. Part of it is that the book is bursting with allusion, the characters make a game of literary quotation, but I don’t pick up the allusion at all or know where it came from. Who knew that detective fiction could make one feel wholly ignorant? Also, the novel takes place at Oxford University, which seems to be a foreign country for all its customs, rituals and own peculiar language. None of this is detracting from my enjoyment of the book though, but I must admit there has been some skimmage.

And also remarkable is how Sayers treats the “work” of writing. Maureen Corrigan wrote considerably of her own search for “work” in The Novel (whose characters are usually writers who never write and banks who work off-page, etc.). But here we find it– Harriet Vane is a crime writer, though various circumstances have led her to be sleuthing on the side. And throughout the book as she seeks to get to the bottom of goings-on at her old Oxford College, she is plotting her latest novel. We see her actually working– as well as being distracted by all the parts of being a writer that keep one from actually writing. For Harriet Vane, plotting is an actual occupation, sort of akin to moving furniture around a room, and it’s so rarely that we see this kind of intellectual activity enactioned. It has been fascinating to encounter.

Oh, and yes. Like all the English novels I’ll ever love, there are obligatory tea references. Delight.

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