December 8, 2016
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. 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
June 8, 2016
#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 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.
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.
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
I’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.
April 18, 2016
Tonight I was inspired by Sarah’s #ShortStoryaDay post to pick up “Not Her Real Name,” by Emily Perkins, from her short story collection of the same title. I’d first read the collection when I interviewed Emily Perkins in 2008, when Novel About My Wife came out. In her post, Sarah notes that she was surprised to reread this story and discover that two characters share a name with her daughter, and surmises that it was was with this story that she first fell for the name. She quotes a couple of lines from the story: “—Imagine a couple both called Thea, says Thea. —Isn’t it awful? One of the hazards of same-sex relationships I suppose.”
Now right now I’m reading a book called The Name Therapist, by Duana Taha, which is so much fun and absolutely fascinating and I can’t wait to tell you all about it. And perhaps I should have seen it coming, going from such a non-fiction book about names and how they define their bearers to a story called “Not Her Real Name” that I might encounter uncanny connections. And while I didn’t encounter either of my own daughters in this story, what I did find was really kind of strange.
I read the beginning of the story, the part about the two Theas, and then went back to The Name Therapist, in which Taha writes about the possibilities of same-name couples in same-sex relationships and how this idea fascinates her as a name enthusiast. And then there was a bit about a guy named Marc who orders coffee at Starbucks and gives his name as “Marc with a C,” which comes back on his cup labelled, “Carc”. Going back to “Not Her Real Name” then to find another Marc drinking coffee:
“Marc with a c. Cody’s seen it written down by the telephone… Marc. Marc. There’s something disturbing about the name. Like Jon without an h. Or Shayne with a y. Marc. Spelt backwards, it makes cram. A real word. This makes it seem like code. Code for what? Cram, cram. Trying to break the Code. OK, so her own name is enough of a liability. She shouldn’t laugh at other people’s. But Marc—its like biting tinfoil.”
Cody’s own name is referred to in connection the Jack Kerouac novel, Visions of Cody, which she’s never read, she says, and I haven’t read it either. I’m still a bit confused by the story’s title and what it means exactly, trying to break that code. And maybe this is the point. Earlier in the story, Cody’s thinking about a guy called Francis. “You always thought, Francis, rhymes with answers. Which it doesn’t, really. But you’d change the s of answers to be soft like his name.”
And isn’t all that so weird? I am really not so singular but I suspect that I am the only person in the world who is reading The Name Therapist and “Not Her Real Name” concurrently, two works that speak to each other so clearly, asking questions with answers echoing back. A book that came out the other day with a short story collection that was published twenty years ago by an author on the other side of the world—and they are connected in ways their authors never even fathomed. And this is why I love books and literature so much, that it’s all a code, quite beyond us and quite unbreakable. And the infinite possibilities of these connections too, how books upon books can talk to each other, the libraries of the world abuzz with these private conversations.
February 13, 2016
Everything’s been a special occasion around here lately, what with Pancake Tuesday and the fact that we had afternoon tea for dinner the day after that. And now it’s a long weekend, four days of it if you count Harriet’s PA Day, and we’re stretching out our Valentines Day celebrating and marking it with cheese. (Long weekend adventures have been extensively instagrammed.) It’s freezing cold outside but everything around here is wonderful and cozy, which feels nice after our terrible boring Christmas vacation rife with sickness. I just finished reading my second novel by Tana French (you MUST read Tana French) and now for sentimental reasons, am about to embark upon a reread of The Republic of Love.
January 26, 2016
Do you know that I’ve nearly filled up an entire notebook with jottings and quotes from my Mad Men rewatch, and we’re only just beginning Season Three? To what purpose, I don’t know. It’s my new fitness regimen (the Mad Men, not the notebooks) as I ride my exercise bike while we’re watching, and I check the time less and it goes by much faster than when I’m merely reading. (Don’t tell reading I said that; it’s all exercise’s fault anyway.) I might give up on fitness altogether at the end of Season 7. Anyway, it’s a scramble to get the children into bed so we can begin watching and me riding by 9 or so, which means when it’s over, it’s that time of day I’ve spent all day waiting for: time to curl up with Tana French. I am reading her novel, In the Woods, for the first time, and I am in reading heaven. Ostensibly crime fiction but so much more substantial than that, rich and enthralling. I am so busy right now, which was a terrible time to pick the book up, because all I want to read is read it all day and forever. I am looking forward to discovering her other four novels, each of which features a more minor characters from the previous. one Anyway, I’m now in the midst of my second week to finish up my edits on Mitzi Bytes, and things are going well. Getting back to it in a matter of minutes, but in the meantime, wanted to share with you some funny faces from previous days: Harriet and Iris and I making funny faces in the kitchen; evidence that Stuart and I indeed went skating at Harbourfront on Friday night and it was wonderful; and a perfect photo from yesterday when Iris broke into the stampers and rubbed one all over her face, inadvertently channelling David Bowie.
December 9, 2015
So there I was, reading The Diplomat: Lester Pearson and the Suez Crisis. A book I picked off my shelf after the Paris terror attacks last month, and as Canada stands on the cusp of returning to the international stage in terms of diplomacy. There aren’t any women in it, so it wasn’t completely my cup of tea, but it was relevant and really interesting. Further (and don’t tell anyone I said this, but) Lester “Mike” Pearson was sort of a bit womanly himself, in that he was a pragmatist with a sense of the universal, he was good at working with others, negotiating egos and orchestrating practical outcomes. He saw the value of a middle ground, nuance; his world wasn’t black and white. And I was learning so much about how decisions 90 years ago and ever since have set up the Middle East to be the bloody mess it is today. How much history matters to right now, but so few lawmakers seem to have that kind of vision (and also keep making the same mistakes over and over. Iraq in 2003, anyone?)
But then I got so so sick. The night my sickness arrived, I had a terrible fever and was staring at a photo of Anthony Eden in Ottawa in Feburary 1956 and he wasn’t wearing a scarf, and I was shivering inside my own terrible chill, and thinking, “Poor Anthony Eden. He was must have been so cold.” When I went to sleep, the fever continued, and I had weird, terrible Suez Crisis dreams all night.
The Diplomat is a very good book, but it’s a terrible book to be reading while one is ill. Though perhaps during that first week of illness, there is existed no book that would have suited. I kept falling asleep and staring at the ceiling, and Lester was kind of like my albatross—it was far too important a book to give up on (and perhaps I would never return to it) but I wanted light and Lester wasn’t it. Eventually though, as the fever abated and I persisted, I got to to the end. 340 pages of men doing men things, as my virus morphed into pneumonia, and I’m glad I didn’t give up. But it was also a relief when I was finished.
The other terrible thing about being sick, speaking in terms of literary blogging, is that I never got a chance to talk about Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, which I was reading before The Diplomat. Penelope Fitzgerald, who I always struggle with anyway. Offshore is the book of hers I’ve most appreciated, and my desire to be more appreciative in general was underlined by the Hermione Lee bio. So I finally picked up The Blue Flower, which had historical fiction working against it. “You think that that you won’t like it, but you will,” is what everybody told me, and they were right. A fictionalization of the life of the eighteenth century German writer, Novalis, whom I’ve never ever heard of. So weird, but also perfectly realized. How did she do that? And, even more curiously, why? But yes, it turned out to be the most easily, immediately appreciable Penelope Fitzgerald ever. So glad I am persisting with her work. It helps, of course, that her books are short. I think a writer can make anything work if her books are short.
After The Diplomat, when I was still unwell, I spent a weekend rereading The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, and The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhugh, which was perfect. Then Next to Nature, Art, by Penelope Lively, which was a bit lacklustre but also comforting and funny. And from there to The Story of a New Name, because there is no time like the pneumonic to finally get down to Elena Ferrante. And when that near-500 page epic was finished (but not an albatross), I read The Strange Library, by Haruki Murakami, whose UK edition is exquisite. So weird, but also short, and a beautiful book.
And now since I’ve been reading Astonishing Splashes of Colour, by Clare Morrall, which I found in a box on the street sometime last summer, I think, and I like it so much. 12 years late to the party, I know—it was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2003, a long-shot contender. But it’s a really weird, absorbing, surprising and beautiful book, if it is painfully sad as well. But it’s just so nice to be sick and stuck in bed, and loving a book at once. You never can tell the perfect book for the perfect time, can you?
Seasonally, I’m dipping in and out of Derek McCormack’s beautiful book, Christmas Days. It’s nice to have the time to do such a thing. And also enjoying my daily selection from the 2015 Short Story Advent Calendar—today’s author is Rosemary Nixon, who I love so much. When I’m very excited about one of these stories, I save them all day long for the sweet joy of anticipating. And next up is Girl in the Dark, by Anna Lyndsey, which my friend Janine gave me last summer when I developed my bizarre sun allergy. (She sent it with hope that it would not be my future, but perhaps something I would appreciate.) It just seems like the right thing, someone else’s trouble to outweigh my own, plus it seems readable and easy. And yes, short. Means a lot these days. Will report back as things transpire.
Anyway, the other bad thing about poor Lester is that he’s become my teapot coaster, and I keep pouring tea all over his steely-resolved head.