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October 1, 2018

The Journey Prize Stories 30

Seasons aside, a year is kind of an arbitrary span of time, but I love that my 2018 has been defined by the gestation of The Journey Prize Stories 30 and the experience of being a juror for the prize. It was January and the dead of winter when I received an email from McClelland and Stewart Editor Anita Chong with this amazing opportunity, and it was February and March as I read the stories, 100 of them, usually while my children were at Brownies or swimming lessons, and I was the woman with the giant bundle of papers. April and May were my conversations with co-jurors Sharon Bala and Zoey Leigh Peterson, which were so rewarding and inspiring and we learned a lot from each other (and then Sharon and I spent a day together at The FOLD in May, and my admiration for her was set in stone). Through May and June, we wrote our introduction together, and set the stories’ order, which was also terrifically interesting. And then our jury was announced in late July, the finalists not long after. And last week the book become available in stores, that giant bundle of papers rendered into something readable and magnificent. I’m reading it now, a story per night, revisiting these stories in a very different context from where I found them in the first place. What a journey, to be more than a bit corny. But I am really excited about this book. (And about the presentation of the winner at the Writers’ Trust Awards in November. The Journey Prize year goes on and on…)

Anyway, I now implore you all to go out and buy The Journey Prize Stories 30, because it’s such a rich and wonderful collection of stories. But I’ve got a second copy going that I want to give away to someone in the meantime. If you’d like a chance to win it (and have a Canadian address), please leave a comment on my blog or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram telling me what your favourite Canadian story, or story writer, or story collection is. Winner will be chosen Monday October 8.

March 22, 2018

“But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.”

I wrote about abortion again. Boring, I know, but every time I write about abortion, it seems to more and more politically imperative to do so. And this piece is one of the best essays I’ve ever written, I think. I’m really proud of it and feel good having those words, this story, out in the world. It’s such a common story, but for so many reasons, it’s not one we read about or hear about very often. Though I’m writing it not just for myself and so many women like me whose uncomplicated, ordinary, straightforward stories of abortion are that it was a good thing, a blessing, and simultaneously not a big deal but also such an important part of our lives. I’m writing it also with the hope of reaching someone who sees abortion as killing a baby, and cannot fathom how it could ever be ordinary, let alone a blessing. Not even to change their mind, but to have them entertain the notion of considering a different point of view. “I understand where you’re coming from,” I want to tell them, because I do, “but for a moment just consider my story.”

Which makes me think of a idea that keeps recurring in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which I’m reading aloud to my family at the moment. Uttered first in a line by Meg Murry’s mother, who tells her, “But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.” Just because someone doesn’t understand my story doesn’t mean my story isn’t true. My story is, no matter how much that complicates your worldview. I’ve written before about being grateful for my abortion, for what it’s taught me about in-betweenness and grey areas, and about the value of listening to people and believing them when they tell you about their experiences. Even if you can’t identify, even if you can’t understand. Because it’s possible that the limits of your understanding are also the limits of your point of view, and I want my ideas to be able to travel further than that. And I hope that other people might see the benefits of such open-mindedness as well.

January 22, 2018

The Opposite of Democracy

“…the ideal of the internet represents the very opposite of democracy, which is a method for resolving difference in a relatively orderly manner through the mediation of unavoidable civil associations. Yet there can be no notion of resolving differences in a world where each person is entitled to get exactly what he or she wants. Here all needs and desires are equally valid and equally powerful. I’ll get mine and you’ll get yours; there is no need for compromise and discussion. I don’t have to tolerate you and you don’t have to tolerate me. No need to care for my neighbour next door when I can stay with my chosen neighbours in the ether, my email friends and the visitors to the sites I visit, people who think as I do, who want what I want. No need for messy debate and the whole rigamarole of government with all its creaky bothersome structures. There’s no need for any of this, because now that we have the World Wide Web the problem of our pursuit of happiness has been solved! We’ll each click for our individual joys, and our only dispute may come if something doesn’t get delivered on time. Would you rather be at home?”

—Ellen Ullman, “The Museum of Me,” which WAS WRITTEN IN 1998 (!!), from her amazing essay collection Life in Code.

December 20, 2017

What a Gift

I broke, I did, in the very best way. I entered 2017 in a tizzy about whether to list my books or not to list them, and then in December I read Pamela Paul’s My Life With Bob and the decision was made: now I have a Bob (“book of books”) too. I’m even going to quit Goodreads, because keeping track of my reading was the one good thing that site did for me, but I’ve gone analogue. And I’m so happy about that.

I started blogging about books in 2007 because I needed a deeper way to engage with my reading—otherwise I was reading too quickly and the books passed me by. And while the blog has served me very well in this respect during the last ten years, I’ve found myself getting a little bit confused about its place in my reading life—if a book gets read but I don’t blog about it, does the book then even matter?

What I like about the Book of Books is that it’s antisocial, as reading is, as reading was meant to be. It reminds me that I read for my own sake, and for the books themselves, instead of as a public performance. I’ve had a busy year in which I’ve worked hard to confine my work (of which my blog is a part) to daytime hours, evenings preserved for (you guessed it…) reading. And so I’ve had less time to write about all the books that have come my way—and that’s okay.

Even though it bothers me a little bit (can you tell I’m neurotic?) that I never told you how much I adored The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride, even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like it at all, or what a pleasure it was to read Catherine Graham’s deceptively c0mplex debut novel Quarry—maybe I won’t quit Goodreads after all because I like the opportunity to give stars to a book like that. I kind of went on book vacation at the end of month, so I read Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere purely for fun, and Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal. It feels like a luxury to not have to formulate an opinion. A luxury just to be reading.

The poetry too! I’ve read a lot of poetry this year that meant a lot to me, but because I can’t/haven’t taken time to articulate those experiences, it’s almost as though they never happened. But they did. And I take solace from that—how much of a relationship between a reader and a book is just so absolutely personal and no one else will ever know about it. And nor should they, necessarily.

I never told you how much I loved S.K. Ali’s Saints and Misfits, or Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (which is a wonderful companion to Rebecca Rosenblum’s So Much Love). I read the weirdly subversive The Misfortune of Marion Palm, by Emily Cullitan, in August, and didn’t tell anyone at all, which seemed deliciously indulgent. The book’s cover did match my hideous bathroom exactly, however, which I discovered while reading it in the bathtub, and I posted a photo on Instagram for posterity. I know some discerning minds get frustrated by #Bookstagram, and its artfully arranged books with no indication that anyone’s actually reading them. But I like it actually, that I get to read it, and you get to know about it, but I don’t have to do any more work than that.

Perhaps the moral this entire blog post is that I am tired.

Counting down to Friday, when I’m going to go offline for a week, maybe two, and devote my life to reading four fat biographies I’ve been saving for just this occasion. Last year I read bios of Monet, Jane Jacobs, and Shirley Jackson, and this year it’s going to be Svetlana Stalin, Joyce Wieland, Vita Sackville-West, and P.K. Page (whose name just took me far too long to remember. Not P.D. James, I knew, but my mind offered no alternatives. Maybe I am really really tired).

Anyway, so far I’m enjoying my Book of Books, and have relished the experience of adding each new title, making the joyous act of completing a book even more remarkable. And there are are so many blank lines and pages before me now—what a gift to be able to fill them.

December 8, 2016

Holiday Reading Break

I never plan my holiday reading breaks—they just sort of happen. One minute I’m reading the new Zadie Smith, with Eimear McBride, Deborah Levy, Paul Beatty on deck, and next thing I know I’m reading Linwood Barclay. (I’ve never read Linwood Barclay before—he comes much recommended and I’m loving this book so much.) So suddenly all the big books and ARCs are put aside, and I’m reading murder mysteries, juicy novels, and all the books on my shelf that I’ve been meaning to get around to for ages but haven’t because they’re not particularly timely and little of consequence. Which makes me not the best book blogger, because I’m going to make a 2016 Best Of and I’ve not really properly read 2016 yet. But a holiday reading break also makes me happy and sane as a reader and a person, and is the nicest way to wind down into the holiday season. I will be reporting in from my holiday reads, and do look forward to resuming Big Books again in the new year.

July 20, 2016

Everything happened in those five years after my abortion.

shrill“Everything happened in those five years after my abortion. I became myself. Not by chance, or because an abortion is some kind of mysterious, empowering feminist bloode-magick rite of passage (as many, many—too many for a movement ostensibly comprising grown-ups—anti-choices have accused me of being), but simply because it was time. A whole bunch of changes—set into motion years, even decades, back—all came together at once, like the tumblers in a lock clicking into place: my body, my work, my voice, my confidence, my power, my determination to demand a life as potent, vibrant, public, and complex as any man’s. My abortion wasn’t intrinsically significant, but it was my first big grown-up decision—the first time I asserted unequivocally, “I know the life that I want and this isn’t it”; the moment I stopped being a passenger in my own body and grabbed the rudder.” —Lindy West, Shrill (which I am loving. Particularly the part at the end of this essay, “When Life Gives You Lemons”, when she writes about how if it weren’t for “zealous high school youth groupers and repulsive, birth-obsessed pastors” she would never think of her abortion at all.)

July 3, 2016

Summer Starts

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There is no better way to travel then on trains, where the leg room is ample and there is so much time to read. When we booked this weekend away, the train journey itself was the destination, but we had to arrive somewhere, so we chose Ottawa, where we have best cousin-friends and even other friends, and cousin-friends who were kind enough to offer us a place to stay. And it was Canada Day Weekend, so what better place to be…even if the place we mean to be specifically on Canada Day is our cousin’s beautiful backyard across the river in Gatineau. And it really was amazing.

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As we’d hoped, the train journey was a pleasure. I had more time to read than I’ve had in weeks. I finished Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam, which I liked so much and will be writing about, and started Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which was lovely and so much fun. They also had my favourite kind of tea on sale (Sloane Tea’s Heavenly Cream) and so all was right with the world.

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It was such a nice weekend—the children had children to play with and I got to spend time with some of my favourite people. We had an excellent time with our cousins, and met up with my dear friends Rebecca who took us to the Museum of  Nature, and last night I got to visit with my 49thShelf comrades who I’ve been working so happily with for years but have only ever hung out with a handful of times. Apart from one traumatic episode of carsickness (not mine) and the night the children took turns waking up every twenty minutes, it was a perfect long long weekend. I also learned that it is possible to eat my limit in cheetos and potato chips, which I had never suspected. Also that it is probably inadvisable to start drinking before noon.

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We came home today, another good trip, this time with me reading Nathan Whitlock’s Congratulations on Everything, which I am really enjoying, I also started reading the graphic novel of A Wrinkle in Time with Harriet, which we will continue this week. And we arrived home to find that our marigolds have finally bloomed, third generation. We planted them a couple of months back in our community planter, and have been waiting for the flowers to emerge. (Sadly, our lupines didn’t make it.) Summer is finally here proper, what with school out, and even 49thShelf’s Fall Fiction Preview being up (which is my main project for June), and my work days shift with the children being home. I’ve also decided to write a draft of a novel this summer, which is only going to make a tricky situation trickier, but who doesn’t like tricks? We shall see. We will do our best. And there will also be ice cream and holidays and barbecues and sand between our toes, and splash pads and ferry rides and picnics and pools and flowers. It will all go by so fast.

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June 8, 2016

#TodaysTeacup Tragedy

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#TodaysTeacup took a turn for the tragic on Monday when I dumped its contents onto my laptop. It took a few moments to process what had happened, and the computer still appeared to be functioning as I poured tea out of it—perhaps, I pondered, we could pretend this never happened? But then the trackpad stopped working, and the keyboard was messed up. I managed to turn the computer off finally, but I should have done it faster. And for two days now it’s been sitting on a drying rack, a fan blowing underneath it. We managed to boot it up this morning and at first it seemed I might be saved…but alas. The keyboard and mouse appear to be fried, the wireless wasn’t working. The computer seems well on its way to being kaput. Thankfully, I am now a devout user of Dropbox so most important things were saved….except for the few documents I slapped onto my desktop somehow imagining they were more accessible there. My enterprising husband grabbed a USB key and transferred a first draft of a new fiction project (that just hit 20,000 words last week) which I am glad has been saved, though rewriting it might have been a blessing in disguise. I’ll have to do it soon enough anyway. Nothing is lost then, except the money I will need to spend on a new laptop, which is annoying, but my accountant will be grateful actually, because I have so few business expenses it’s ridiculous. (This is what happens when your office is your couch.) And it’s a justified expense, because my computer is so essentially to almost everything I do. Being without it these last few days has felt very strange, and it’s reoriented my week, which was supposed to be very very busy as I got ahead of myself on a few bits before school lets out and I lose my childcare for the summer, and have to begin working in the evenings again. But instead, I’ve spent my evenings reading—last night I read Tell, by Soraya Peerbye, who I heard read at the Griffin Readings last week and whose incredible book I read in one sitting. I’m also reading The Naturalist, by Alissa York, and really enjoying it, plus I finished the third book in Steve Burrows’ Birder Murder series, A Cast of Falcons, the other day and it was fantastic. Coming up is Thirteen Shells, by Nadia Bozak, and We’re All In This Together, by Amy Jones. Must keep on reading these Spring 2016 books like a hurricane, because Fall 2016 (the literary one—it falls earlier than the seasonal one) will be here before we know it. And in the meantime, I’m grateful to Stuart who is letting me use his laptop (even with my track record—I am lucky, for sure) and who has only been kind and sympathetic about something that is entirely down to my own stupidity. Although everyone is stupid sometimes.

May 22, 2016

I slept all night

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I slept all night last night. This is beginning to be kind of unremarkable, since I don’t know when, and it’s not always the case, but more and more it is. Which means something in particular right now, because I’m thinking back to the May holiday weekend last year, which was dreadful, and I wasn’t sure how it wasn’t always going to be that way. (That was the weekend where we had to send our babysitter home because Iris wouldn’t go to sleep, and taking 2+ hours to fall asleep in the evening would proceed to wake up at midnight and every few hours thereafter, and I was so tired and sad and felt enslaved by it all. That was the weekend I finally stopped breastfeeding and we left her to cry until she learned to fall asleep on her own, because I just couldn’t stand it anymore). And while it’s true that me daring to write this down here means that Iris will make up screaming at 4:30am tonight, it’s just nice to affirm that some things do get better.

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We have had a nice weekend—we went to see my parents yesterday and drove home into the most stunning sunset and nobody cried or threw up because we’d gotten all that out of our system on the journey there that morning. Today we got up early (isn’t it funny what can happen when you sleep) and tidied up our backyard and deck for summer, planting flowers in our pots and getting them up all lined up on the fire-escape. Iris went down for her nap (because yes, Iris naps again—we found out that we like her so much better when she does) and I spent the afternoon drinking ice-tea in my hammock in the sunshine. And then got to work preparing for our party tomorrow—Victoria sponge cake and edible bunting (I KNOW!). It’s Harriet’s birthday party, which has a Queen Victoria tea party theme. There will be jam tarts and tiny sandwiches, and we will be making tea blends and decorating mugs. And the party launches our month of celebrations: her actual party on Thursday, Iris’s birthday not long after, and our wedding anniversary, and Father’s Day, and my birthday, and also the birthdays of both our moms. June is full to bursting. And goes by oh so fast.

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I’ve been reading the most fantastic books this weekend—The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy, was a stunner of a debut novel, and one of the best books I’ve read in ages. I remember how good it felt to read The Corrections the first time all those years ago, back before hating Jonathan Franzen became an international pastime (who I’ve resented ever since Freedom), and The Turner House was kind of like that. The Detroit setting is so compelling, and the novel is so much in its reach (as any novel about a family with 13 siblings would be) and I loved it. I wanted to buy the book as soon as I read Doree Shafrir’s profile, “Why American is Ready for Novelist Angela Flournoy” and the novel did not disappoint. (Incidentally, how much richer would literature be if everyone wrote as wonderfully about books as Shafrir does here?)

I’ve spent today reading Double Teenage, by Joni Murphy, which I was initially concerned I wasn’t cool enough to appreciate, but it’s painful and wonderful (and is also the reason we’ve been listening to Graceland all day). The Katherine Lawrence book, Never Mind, is for our book club meeting next month. And yesterday I bought Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub, whose The Vacationers I read over the July 1 long weekend two years ago as I was embarking upon the first few pages of the first draft of Mitzi Bytes, and gave me the idea of the literary tone I aspired to. So I find myself nostalgic again as I contemplate her latest title while in the very early stages of a new writing project of my own. I kind of want to start reading it right away, but I also am tempted to save it, to look forward to it for a little longer.

May 2, 2016

Tana French is Ruining My Life

IMG_20160428_074301I’ve been working my way through the works of Tana French ever since my friend Nathalie delivered all of her books to my house on New Years Day in a Waitrose bag, along with a container of soup. (Remember December, when everybody was sick?) Now usually such a loan would constitute a kind of imposition, but I’d been meaning to get into Tana French, and as soon as I opened the first book (In the Woods), I was hooked: “What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracted confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception…”

And this is what’s most compelling about French’s novels, the slipperiness of her first person narrators, how they’re always just clinging to the edges of things, and totally unconscious of how close they are to falling. The subtlety with which she reveals the true circumstances behind her narrator’s carefully constructed reality, the skilful way she manages to reveal all the things these characters would never, ever tell us. The things these characters don’t even properly know themselves.

I’m reading her fourth novel now, Broken Harbour. (One more title to go before I return the Waitrose bag, and then French has a new novel coming out this fall. And then I fear it’s going to be like Harriet and Amulet, the way she went through the whole series, 1-7, boom boom boom, having no idea that Amulets don’t grow on trees, thinking new ones were an ever-available resource, and now she has to wait an eternity for number 8). And the book is kind of ruining my life, because I can’t stop reading it, staying up far too late and just-one-more-chapter. Because how can I not want to know what happens next?

Both my children are currently undergoing sleep changes and bed experiments and we’re all playing musical beds at our house these days, and the last few nights I’ve been awakened twice or three times before dawn. But I really can’t blame my current stupor on this entirely, on my children. Because the real reason I’m so tired, like words-confusingly tired, should-not-be-permitted-to-operate-a-motor-vehicle tired, is that I’m staying up past midnight reading Tana French, and then even once I manage to put the book down and turn the light off, I’m still immersed in its atmosphere, fearing shadows in the darkness. Awake and lying still, alert to barely perceptible sounds. Perhaps imagined ones. And the distinction doesn’t even matter.

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