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November 10, 2014

Commemoration serves a political agenda

TNQ131 Cover Front_1“Commemoration serves a political agenda, where nations adopt a single story that comes to represent past wars, constructed to uphold a version of the story that allows a nation to maintain a positive perception of its past. In the absence of multiple voices all speaking their own stories, nuance and contradiction are subsumed under an authoritative narrative.” –Carol Acton, “Lest We Forget: War and Memory in the 21st Century” , TNQ 131

I renewed my subscription to The New Quarterly in July, but something went amiss (in particular: my ability to follow up on things) and so only just today did I receive my copy of TNQ 131 whose theme is “War: An Uphill Battle.” But I’m glad about that, because I think I’ve been looking for this exact read as we head into another Remembrance Day, a day that overwhelms me because I think about it oh so much. Though you mightn’t think so—I don’t wear a poppy. But not for thoughtlessness, no. Rather, I am so uncomfortable with the authoritative narrative, which seems to have become even more heightened since a mentally-ill man with a gun charged through Ottawa last month and murdered another man who was a soldier. Some might explain this as the soldier having given his life for us, which doesn’t make any sense. I am also so troubled by how war devastates soldiers’ mental and physical health—it’s as bad for them as it is for anyone. I learned about war from my grandfathers, who were both quite adamant that there should never be another one, that no human being should have to go through that. And they knew what they were talking about.

I’ve only just started reading TNQ, but am already finding it enthralling—in particular Ayelet Tsabari’s essays about her experiences in the Israeli army and growing up under the threat of war, how those experiences formed the person she’d become. A piece by journalist May Jeong about her experiences reporting from Afghanistan. (She writes, “If we are serious about bringing women’s rights to the this country, we have to end the war first.”) Stories and reflections on war and conflict, by writers including Kevin Hardcastle and Tamas Dobozy. The essay, “Mud” by the brilliant Rachel Leibowitz. “Look, Don’t Look” by Diana Fitzgerald-Bryden, on what violent and graphic images do to those of us who watch them. And Karen Connelly’s “#ItEndsHere” on the war(s) on women, along with poems from her latest book, Come Cold River. So many voices, so much nuance and contradiction. It’s a really stunning issue. I’m glad to have finally received it.

So what to do then when you’re a person who won’t wear a poppy, but who wants your daughters to remember the brutal, thankless war their great-grandfathers fought, and one before it in which their great-great-grandfather died. When you’re allergic to sentiment and glorification, you think that death doesn’t make one a hero and also that all this death and injury is such a waste, and you understand the ramifications of Canada having abandoned its role as a peacekeeper. Well, instead of a moment of silence, we talk and talk, and ask questions, and point out contradictions, and reflect, and we read, and we learn.

bunny-the-brave-war-horseI am very pleased with the new picture book, Bunny the Brave War Horse, by Elizabeth MacLeod and Marie Lafrance, which doesn’t glorify war at all or mask its ugliness, but won’t terrify young readers either. When a soldier dies in the book, no one suggests it was worth it. But the story keeps the memory of WW1 alive, and we can strengthen the connection by pointing out that that it was really not so long ago. There is nuance here, the soldier thinking to himself that the battlefield (with its poppies) must have been a beautiful place before it was wracked and scarred by war.

in-flanders-fieldsI also appreciate the book In Flanders Fields by Linda Granfield, which was first published in 1995 and has just been reissued. Harriet is too young for all the biographical details about John McRae and his poem, but we read the poem itself last night, accompanied by the stirring illustrations, and it made me cry. (It is possible that I so allergic to sentiment because I am particularly susceptible to it.) Yes, it’s definitely part of that authoritative narrative, which would suggest that I have indeed broken faith with those who died, but I haven’t, and neither do I wish current Canadian forces troops anything but “support”, whatever that means. Except what it means has been hijacked, and it’s all very hard, and awful and (really) unnecessary. It is.

An uphill battle, indeed.

However one remembers, though, the point is just not to forget, and I haven’t. I won’t.

February 28, 2013

Brain, Child is back!

sidebar-spring2013-194x248February is almost quit, and while the great outdoors buried in snow and slush, I awoke to a fantastic email in my inbox this morning that is surely a sign of spring: it is time for me to renew my subscription to Brain, Child Magazine. This news all the more remarkable because the magazine folded last year, but it has since received new life with a new owner and editor. And so I was overjoyed to renew, and am excited to have Brain, Child return to my life. It’s such a smart, insightful magazine, and yet you’d not be remiss to read it in the bathtub. It’s the only parenting magazine out there that doesn’t fundamentally exist in order to make you buy stuff and feel bad about the condition of the cake-pops at your kid’s birthday party. According to Brain, Child, there’s no such thing as cake-pops at all. Which isn’t bad, in fact, it’s fine.

So subscribe. You won’t be sorry.

Further, please read this article about the woman who makes a living from mediating between parents and Nannies. You will kill yourself laughing. It begins with James van der Beek’s wife, and goes on spout amazing lines like, ““I just don’t know if she has passion about Olivia.” Then, “I don’t feel safe when you throw a Lego at my head.” And features a woman who made a mission statement for how she wanted to raise her child.  It is truly the best newspaper article that I have ever, ever read.

January 10, 2013

Short fiction joy, news, and reviews.

the-stamp-collectorWe received the most enormous pile of packages on Tuesday, including a magazine each for Harriet and I. Mine was Canadian Notes and Queries, featuring a new short story by Caroline Adderson, and Harriet’s was Chirp, with a fabulous short story by Sara O’Leary (!!), and I loved that both of us were experiencing the joy and goodness of short fiction in fine Canadian magazines, and that Harriet gets to appreciate this fine thing from the age of 3. What a lucky girl.

In other news, I was quoted in this excellent piece by Anne Chudobiak in the Montreal Gazette about the CWILA count and lack of female reviewers in Canadian journals and newspapers. And my review of The Stamp Collector by Jennifer Lanthier and Francois Thisdale is now up at Quill & Quire.

March 11, 2012

"A Sister and a Brother" by Elizabeth Hay

“The snow had gone lacy, its surface melted and worked into very fine patterns like old leaves on a forest floor. In places broken twigs had slowly descended through the snow so that when a few feet away you saw what appeared to be a twig-print, then looking straight down you saw the beautiful black twig itself.”

There is something about the intimacy of Elizabeth Hay’s narrative voice and the specificity of her details that makes it difficult to really understand that her stories are imagined. In her short story “A Sister and a Brother”, which appeared in Issue 34.4 of Room Magazine, this point is underlined by her story’s structure, which moves between past and present with such fluidity, and is presented in a casual tone of reportage (“I am laying this out, because of what happened next…”) that at first glace suggests that the story has very little structure at all. Similarly with the story’s final sentences: “My brother is downstairs in the kitchen while I am up here at my desk. All is well between us.” What kind of story would you want to read that delivered you to that point? What is a story at all?

What a story is not is tidy, beginning, middle and end. Ruth narrates from a vantage point of now, able to pick and choose scenes from her past to create the effect she is intending. There are the explosive moments from her childhood (with undertones of wider violence), and the peaceful ones, and each of these is situated within its own particular contexts, which Hay alludes to (“It’s the Easter before our family comes apart in ways that I long for…”). And in the present day, in her relationship with her brother and the dynamic between them, she notes tracks of past resentments, long simmering outbursts. And then peering down into those tracks, as in the scene with twigs in the snow, the past is still there, vivid and real, just fallen down beneath the surface and out of sight.

Ruth never really liked her brother as much as she liked the idea of him, the ideal of him, and he never had any regard for her at all. She is self-aware enough: “And no doubt I am genuinely annoying as is anyone who is hesitant, bothersome, unsure of herself.” And theirs is a perpetual motion machine of Ruth provoking Peter’s ire by simply being, Peter’s ire diminishing her, Ruth resenting this diminishing and thus provoking his ire further. Driven by the hope of reaching him, which once in a while he lets her do, only to push her away again as soon as she lets her guard down.

It’s a complicated, precarious dynamic, and Hay has created in Ruth a character who mulls these things over and over, analysing questions of character and motivation in a way that it would never occur to her brother to do. She tries to see things from her brother’s point of view, sees herself from the perspective of an outsider through a friend’s story about her own detested sister, understands that it’s possible that she just doesn’t understand Peter’s sense of humour, as her parents tell her. That she has that put-upon-ness that so many women take on in middle age in their relations with their families, and her problems with Peter are no perhaps more complex than that. Not that she’ll leave it at that, because she wants something specific, and she’ll keep unpacking her baggage over and over: “How do we build a love out of the dark timber of the past?”

She says, “To hear an honest something, that’s what I live for.” But even as she’s listening, she’s pleading her case.

February 2, 2012

The New Quarterly 120: Love is Abroad

I’m behind on the times because The New Quarterly 121 has just shown up in my mailbox (which was very crowded. Apparently my downstairs neighbour has just taken out a subscription to The New Quarterly). But I still want to write about how fabulous the last issue was.

It featured the winner of the Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest, Lisa Martin-DeMoor, whose poetry I reviewed nearly two years ago. Her essay “A Container of Light” did that brilliant thing that great essays do, which is to take something very personal personal and intimate, and shine a light upon that story in such a way that the story becomes one about something much bigger. It is particularly significant that Martin-DeMoor is writing about a miscarriage, about mourning and loss, because how do you tell a story bigger that that? But she does, and it’s beautiful: “How light is always leaping out of darkness, even when a light goes out.”

Catriona Wright’s essay “You Just Put Your Lips Together and Blow” resonated with me for personal reasons– I find the sound of whistling more grating than any other on earth. Wright addresses her own compulsive whistling (and the negative reviews it has received), and also the history and meaning of of whistling cross-culturally: “In Hawaii it is supposed to bring bad luck because it mimics the language of the Nightmarchers, ghosts of ancient Hawaiian warriors.” Totally! Also instances of whistling in pop songs, the wolf-whistle and Emmet Till, and the few remaining professional whistlers out there.

Stephen Heighton’s short story “Dialogues of Departure” was wonderful, the story of a Canadian English teacher in Japan who begins to learn Japanese through a language textbook with sinister undertones. (And it got me thinking about books stories about Canadian/Japanese experience– Heighton’s collection Flights Path of the Emperor, Catherine Hanrahan’s Lost Girls and Love Hotels, Sarah Sheard’s Almost Japanese, and even my short story “Georgia Coffee Star”.) Mark Anthony Jarman’s “Adam & Eve Saved from Drowning” was so incredibly good, Jarman’s mastery of language creating an effect that was as rich and sad as it was funny.

I also enjoyed Sara Heinonen’s “Blue Dress”, the story of a woman as lost in her life as she is in Hong Kong (and it was nice to read Heinonen’s fiction, as I enjoy her blog very much). And then “The Fires of Soweto” by Heather Davidson, and we’re told, “This is her first published story”, and I will tell you that this is what small magazines are for. What an amazing discovery. I suspect we’ll be hearing more from her.

And then if that weren’t enough, they publish two poems by one of my most beloved poets, Kerry Ryan. And another  by Susan Telfer, who wrote one of my favourite books of 2010.

Every time I receive The New Quarterly, I have this weird sense that it’s been custom-edited just for my pleasure. It’s one of the great pleasures of my life to be a subscriber.

November 9, 2011

Discovered: Brain, Child Magazine

I’ve been living under a rock, it seems, and so it was only on Monday that a copy of Brain, Child Magazine first appeared in my mailbox. And it’s like I’m right back there years ago discovering MS, Bust, and Bitch for the very first time. All those magazines that changed the way I see myself and the world, that were the turning point when I became a feminist. But after a while, I didn’t need them anymore, and it’s been a really long time since I read indie magazines (um, apart from the five literary magazines that turn up in my mailbox quarterly or more. I do my part, no fear).

But in terms of reading about parenting, it’s been all mainstream over here, and I tired of it much faster than I tired of the others. And not until I finally got my mitts on Brain, Child did I discover that I’ve been parched, starved for story. For essays that run off the page, and are written so well, which challenge and move me (but not too much for the former. Brain, Child seems infinitely readable, even for the bleary-minded. I read the whole thing cover to cover in 36 hours, part of it in the bathtub. It’s like that).

The magazine appeared on my limited radar when the wonderful Stephany Aulenback mentioned her essay published within about her adventures on– a hilarious piece about her discovery of her children’s alleged royal lineage. And then I read “Glass Half Full”: has telling the “truth” about motherhood been taken to the point of dishonesty? And this was when I decided to buy a subscription, because I wanted a parenting magazine that had Rachel Cusk as a touchstone (and which doesn’t advertise boatloads of unnecessary crap, like that ridiculous stroller that turns into a tricycle, or denim diapers).

I loved the essay about the woman with chicken pox in her third trimester, and the scene where her two-year-old is finally allowed to see her after weeks of separation– the primal way in which the little girl reclaims her mother. In another essay, a mother accompanies her small daughter to her birth mother’s sister’s wedding– and contemplates the ways in which the birth mother will always be disappointing. Or another in which a woman thinks about the meaning of “inappropriate” and links it to her daughters’ discomfort with her body after her mastectomy.

I love that there is fiction here, and loooong book reviews, and that the magazine ends with a poem that is funny. I love the mothercentricity of the magazine’s approach, the literary quality of the writing, that the essays offer more questions than answers, and also that I subscribed for my Fall issue so late that it won’t be long until the Winter one arrives.

September 23, 2011


At the age of 2 and one quarter and a bit, Harriet is now officially weaned, which I’m telling you now for a couple of reasons. The first is that I truly enjoying horrifying the kind of people who become horrified by the fact that I’ve breastfed for so long. The second reason is because it’s quite a milestone, and I don’t like the idea of breastfeeding having to be a private thing, business that I keep to myself for fear of horrifying somebody (except when I want to horrify someone, as previously noted), because it really is of the mundane essential stuff of life that I write about on my blog all the time. And the third reason I raise the topic here is because breastfeeding was always when I got my periodical reading done, and the loss of this reading time each day now means that I’ve got magazines piling up in my house at a terrifying rate. Plus it’s September, which means there is a new release out basically every day that I’m meaning to getting around to read, and the Victoria College Book Sale is this weekend (which is, as many of you know, the thing I enjoy in the world more than anything else at all except Afternoon Tea). So there will be books, books and more books, and now I’m a bit terrified at the prospect of my leaning tower of magazines.

September 11, 2011

Ten Years Later

Like many people, I don’t require an anniversary to allow for reflection about what happened in New York City and around the world on September 11, 2001. So much that has happened since has seemed to spin out of those strange few hours on that blue, blue morning– ours was the same sky, and it was beautiful. But, also like so many people, this tenth anniversary has me reflecting on my own proximity to the tragedy, and remembering that it was the first day of my final year of university, how I heard the news of a plane crash on my pink clock radio and how I turned on our tiny TV, and saw the second tower fall. How the CN Tower was dark that night, and watching CNN on the TV at KOS at College and Bathurst where I ate french fries with my friends. It seemed like the end of something, of the world, of innocence, of the old world order, and that would have been bad enough (and perhaps even good, in a sense), but what that day turned out to be instead was the beginning of something, and that something would only get worse. We’ve come of age in a world I never would have imagined on September 10, 2001, that night I sat on my rooftop balcony and pretended I smoked, and longed for something to happen.

Where we are now is reflected in Granta 116: Ten Years Later, my second foray into this magnificent magazine. (Events are being held around the world in connection with the launch of this issue. I attended on last Wednesday, with readings and discussions.) With all the memorializing, self-indulgent weeping (mine, I mean) and discussions of my pink clock radio, what’s missing, of course, is context, and here we find it in abundance. Here is the kind of memorial that matters, not so much reliving that terrible day but looking around and seeing where it’s taken us. Though theme is loose– “Why this story? Why this issue?” asked Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, whose short story “Laikas 1″ appears here, last Wednesday at the event at Type Books. The connections are not immediately clear, and sometimes they don’t come clear at all, but that’s sort of the way it is with this sort of thing, with how did we get from here there to here. The trajectory is rarely straightforward.

Phil Klay’s  “Deployment” is deeply affecting story of a soldier home from Iraq who’s on the verge of breakdown as he struggles to make sense of what he saw there and the things he did there, and the strange connections (or disconnections) between these and the civilian life he’s meant to live again. In “A Tale of Two Martyrs”, we learn of the human stories behind the events that sparked The Arab Spring. In “Crossbones”, a man searches for his son who has disappeared to Somalia to join an Al Queda faction. There are two stories (on fiction, one not) of men who were wrongly sold by Afghan warlords to the Americans for the $5000 reward they were paying for terrorists.

A strange, wonderful story of a North Korean spy aboard a derelict fishing boat, Libyan graffiti artists, photos of Libyan refugees in a camp on the Libyan border. Elliot Woods writes about a variety of perspectives of American serviceman, underlined by his own wretched experiences. Declan Walsh’s phenomenal “Jihad Redux” tells the story of foreign intervention in the Afghan tribal regions over the last 100 years– the same old story, except it’s not, and understanding why is important. Kathryn’s “Laikas 1″ is so terribly funny, and gruesome, and its connections to the rest of the issue exalt the issue entire– this story of the TTC and High Park coyotes so belongs here. Then Anthony Shahid’s “American Age, Iraq” about a Jesuit college in Baghdad that thrived from the ‘thirties to the ‘sixties, and about what “America” represented to the rest of the world before it began to mean “boots on the ground.”

Clearly then, there is a world beyond that long ago view from my balcony (though Kathryn’s story affirms that my Toronto view was there), and here we look forwards and backwards to discover it. Posing questions without answers, and challenging the answers I always figured were obvious, and if you really want to retrace the route from there to here, I’d say Granta 116 would be a essential volume to bring on the journey.

September 5, 2011


Throughout August, I had the joy of making my way through QUARC, a joint venture between The New Quarterly and ARC Poetry Magazine. The two estimable mags had decided to put their covers together, just once, and to play on the theme their combined names suggested. And so the issue was devoted to the place where art meets science, writers exploring this most unparticular point in an extraordinary variety of ways.

The whole package is absolutely stunning, with each side of the magazine featuring its own gorgeous colour spread, and so much bang for your buck– it’s the size of a small city phonebook. I started with the ARC side, with Margaret Atwood’s “Annie the Ant”, which she’d written in childhood (and I think this is where EO Wilson got the idea for his novel…), and then a short essay on the story and what we can detect of Atwood’s current preoccupations in her younger self. And then a wonderful selection of poems all about animals (this section has been entitled “Bestiary”), accompanied by illustrations of scientific specimens.

I loved Patricia Young’s poems about the various disturbing ways that animals have sex. There is an excerpt from Joan Thomas’ novel Curiosity, about a real life 19th century fossil hunter (who happened to be female), and then an interview with Thomas, with this wonderful passage: “Maybe we’d think more holistically if we’d retained the terms “natural history” or “natural philosophy” for what we now call “science”. There is a narrative in evolution so huge that it boggles the mind. The deeper we go, the more we find to marvel at…”

Then a series of poems by Danielle Devereaux about and/or starring Rachel Carson. The full colour spread is a series of photos devoted to the narrative of obsolescence, which is more complex that we imagine– a circuit board from a 1960s computer, a dictaphone from the 1930s, and a cosmic ray machine. A PK Page glosa, Christian Bok as “language as virus”, a fascinating essay by Aradhana Choudhuri called “Code as Poetry”.

The New Quarterly asked its writers for “particle fictions”, creative responses to the rather fanciful names of quarks: Charm, Strange, Up, Down, Top and Bottom (or Truth and Beauty). Following these selections is an interview with Alice Munro by TNQ and ARC editors about her short story “Too Much Happiness”, about  the mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky. I loved Robyn Sarah’s “The Scientist as Philosopher”, Alice Major’s mind-twisting “The Ultraviolent Catastrophe”, Don McKay’s “The Holy Ground of Plate Tectonics”, Susan Ioannou’s “Rocks and Words”– all right, I’m just quoting the table of contents now, but you get my point.

And then the exquisite “Ova Aves”, which is a full-colour excerpt from the letterpress book composed of photographs of eggs from the Mount Allison University biology collection, and accompanying poems by Harry Thurston: “Osprey”, “Common Loon”, and (intriguingly), “Unknown”, then an interview with Mount A. ornithologist Gay Hansen, curator of the collection, who answers a question I’d never considered: “What is an egg?”. The issue ends with three poems by Zachariah Wells, which I adored, in particular “The Engineer Produces Intelligent Design”. On eyes: “Shortsighted, longsighted, astigmatic/ crosseyed, walleyed, colour blind, macular/ degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts– that the sucker’s ever work’s miraculous.”

Truth be told, there was lot in these pages that I didn’t understand, but even truthier be told is that this is my experience often when I encounter a literary journal. And yet there was something marvelous about the concreteness of the ideas that still baffled me, and beauty in unpoetic language as rendered poetic.

QUARC is a wondrous object to behold, and I’d urge you to pick up a copy while you still can.

June 11, 2011

Remarkable things about the NMAs

1) I was pleased to learn that I can be gracious in defeat, though it wasn’t difficult under the circumstances. From Twitter, I gathered that being excited about the National Magazine Awards isn’t cool, but maybe those people get out more than I do. It’s not every Friday night that I get to get dressed up, turn up at a fabulous venue, drink wine, eat delicious, and celebrate Canadian magazines with 600 other well-frocked individuals. It was wonderful. And then, on top of it all, to have my piece on display, to hear my name called and see it up on screen with the other nominees for Personal Journalism– it was completely overwhelming, and more than enough, I thought. And when the winner was announced, and it wasn’t me, I realized that it was really, really was enough, and was happy to remain extraordinarily happy.

2) I was also happy because I spent the evening with Kim Jernigan and Amanda Watkins of The New Quarterly, and (seriously) the only disappointment I felt was that I wasn’t able to bring home a prize to them and their magazine, which has always been so good to me. Thanks to them, I never once looked forlorn amidst the hubbub. They were splendid company.

3) Speaking of good company, I was also happy to meet and speak with DB Scott, who was recipient of the Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement.

4) I was also amazed to see that my postal phantom was nominated for a National Magazine Award. He also didn’t win, so there is still no confirmation that he exists apart from in the ether.

5) I saw Dani Couture, and Medeine Tribenevicius, met Priscilla Uppal, and Christopher Doda, knew the bartender from high school, and met Joanna from More Magazine who reads my blog (hello, Joanna!).

6) I really only showed up because I was promised a swim in the famous NMA chocolate fountain, but there was no fountain this year– the first discernible evidence I’ve seen that perhaps the magazine industry is dying. The ice cream sandwiches, however, almost made up for the loss. But maybe I just didn’t know what I was missing.

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