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Pickle Me This

May 14, 2020

Rereading Jackson Brodie in the Spring of 2020

“‘Life’s random,’ he said, The best you can do is pick up the pieces.'” —When Will There Be Good News?

There are several ways a reader comes to Kate Atkinson: as the award-winning author of historical novels including Life After Life and A God in Ruins; as author of the Jackson Brodie detective novels, which were made into a celebrated television series; or as the quirky literary superstar who won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1995 for Behind the Scenes at the Museum, an event celebrated with news headlines referring to Atkinson as “an unknown hotel chambermaid.”

The third route was my own path to Kate Atkinson’s work, though I didn’t encounter it for another decade, reading a copy of a library book I’d borrowed from a friend, which seems like the least intimate literary encounter I’ve ever experienced, but it changed everything for me, the unforgettable first line marking Ruby Lennox’s conception: “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall…”

I wasn’t fond of detective fiction when I picked Atkinson’s Case Histories, presumably around the same time, but it occurred to me when I did that all literary fiction is about mystery in a sense, and indeed Behind the Scenes at the Museum was, structurally at least, a work of detective fiction, except the sleuth was the reader, because it’s a puzzle of a novel with a solution I didn’t see coming.

But I read Case Histories, because Kate Atkinson was now on my list of fundamental authors, authors whose work I will buy the day of release. Even if I wasn’t as crazy about Jackson Brodie as other readers were, perhaps distrusting of genre—although these books would prove to be my gateway to detective fiction proper, and fifteen years later, I’m absolutely a devotee.

And maybe it was because these books weren’t my favourite, or maybe it was the reason why they weren’t: the plots of the novels didn’t stay with me. Except for the first book, vaguely, the story of the Land sisters and their pile-on of tragedies. When I sat down to reread Case Histories this year in March, it was remarkable that I remembered nothing at all about the story except who had dunnit.

Part of it was that I’m not sure detective fiction necessarily lends itself to rereading for the average reader (and I am also talking about the average work of detective fiction, of which the Jackson Brodie novels, I think, are not). Also because this is a series of novels that have come out over fifteen years—it’s been ten years between Started Early, Took My Dog and the latest, Big Sky. Which I read last June on my 40th birthday, and I remembered nothing of the books that came before. Which is fine—each of these novels stands up fine on their own. But to miss anything of Atkinson’s keen sense of story and detail would be thoroughly a waste, and I thought how much I’d appreciate the chance to reread the Jackson Brodie books from start to finish.

And when the world fell apart in March, and I cycled into despair along with it, finding myself unable to read, the chance appeared, and I took it. Case Histories: An absorbing novel rife with plot, perfect for escaping. But also undeniably dark, brutal, violent, in a way that resonated with the world around me. A book that was an escape, but that was not completely a disconnect either. Why do bad things happen? Why is life so unfair? How do we keep going when people die? How do people survive trauma and tragedy? What kind of life is possible after that?

I was still pretty shattered when I reread Case Histories, during that very bad week I spent unable to eat, barely sleeping, having panic attacks, and finding it exhausting to walk upstairs. But the act of reading, of finding joy and solace again in a book, which is my usual practice, helped me to find my centre again, to find my feet, and feel at home inside myself even at this very strange time.

I don’t know that I properly understand these books’ notion of justice until I read them again in 2020. Jackson Brodie as an outlaw—he used to be a policeman. But the sense that justice proper lives outside the law, which continues to benefit the powerful, which continues to undermine the safety of girls and women. Jackson’s origin story lies in the murder of his older sister, a murder that was was never solved, and it’s a need to right what happened somehow that drives Jackson in these novels, which portray a world, very similar to our own, which is a dangerous case for girls and women.

That murders go unsolved, crimes unavenged. Clues don’t add up, villains get away with it, the banality of so much of this. Reality is a different kind of narrative, is what these books are saying, and yet, somehow, within the confines of a narrative, and there is the possibility of redemption in that. For the world, I mean. The possibility of hope.

One Good Turn takes place two years after Case Histories, Jackson in Edinburgh where his girlfriend Julia has a show at the summer festival. “A Jolly Good Murder Mystery” is the novel’s subtitle, and there is a rollickingness to the novel, whose characters include a writer of middling detective fiction. One Good Turn is self-aware, possibly winking. And its many strands are slightly absurd, but their weaving is masterful, a much richer tapestry than Case Histories. The confident way it all holds together.

And then When Will There Be Good News?, which is a literary masterpiece, I think, the best book of them all, and they’re all extraordinarily good. Featuring Reggie Chase, who appears again in Big Sky—but I didn’t remember her. Unfathomable too, because she’s basically unforgettable. A teenage genius from the wrong side of the tracks, almost no one to guide her. A devastating train crash, and it’s Reggie who saves Jackson’s life, forever in his debt—and doubly, because he writes her a cheque that bounces when his wife disappears with his entire fortune. And we meet Louise Monroe again, the police inspector from the previous book, and this all is a book about trauma, and violence, everyday brutality, domestic violence—and Atkinson even makes it funny, like all the books, which still doesn’t undermine the enormity of the message. Humour is how you make it bearable, I guess, and it helps that life is so absurd.

To reread a series of books so concerned with history is interesting, and the series also shows the changes occurring during the years they were written and take place. I will never forget my first trip to the UK post 2008 economic crash, how different it was, all the holes in the streets where the Woolworths had been—and Started Early, Took My Dog is situated in the wreckage of that moment, another kind of trauma. “The world was going to hell in a handcart…” The sex workers who used to do the job because of poverty, but now it’s because of addiction. Started Early… moves between the 1970s and 2010, and it’s a strange kind of nostalgia. It wasn’t that things were better then, but they were different, that’s all. This is a novel that’s about the fraying of the social fabric, but that’s not necessarily a contemporary story, and might be classic after all. There also have always been bad guys, and some things never change, which is why Jackson Brodie knows as much as as he does—when he’s not walking headlong into disaster.

(This novel is also the way I discovered Betty‘s, and made our first visit to the one in Ilkley in 2011, on the recommendation of Jackson Brodie himself… “If Britain had been run by Betty’s, it would never have succombed to economic Armageddon.”)

And then last week I reread Big Sky, not even a year after the first time, and I knew Reggie Chase this time, now a police inspector herself. And I loved it, just like I loved all of them—its furious, unabashed politics and strong sense of justice. And I loved too the way a few strands in the book that do not quite get tied up, which could suggest that perhaps there are more Jackson Brodie novels to come. A reader can hope…

Or else it’s just that these books, while precise in their composition, are also meant to mimic reality—rough, ragged, and untidy, but sometimes so sublime.

January 31, 2019

On Meeting the Austins

Like many bookish people, A Wrinkle in Time played a big role in my literary foundation, although it was the third book in Madeleine L’Engle’s series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, that I was really passionate about, and have reread many times since. Because although …Planet is fantastical and concerned with time travel and parallel universes, it is very much of this world, which has always been what I’m interested in most. My favourite parts of A Wrinkle in Time were the scenes set in Meg Murry’s kitchen, the meals her mother cooked on her bunsen burner. Likewise, in …Planet we’re back in that same place as the Murry family (Meg pregnant with her first child) awaits perilous news in global politics, a ruthless dictator with his finger on the nuclear button…and Meg’s brother, Charles-Wallace, travels back through time with a unicorn, to mend the brokenness through history that led to the current crisis, brokenness that has always been rooted in family connections or lack thereof. I love this book, and it has brought me tremendous peace and comfort many times.

As a child, I had the fourth and fifth books in L’Engle’s “Time Quintet,” which Wrinkle begins, though I never had strong feelings about them and it’s possible I never actually finished reading An Acceptable Time. I also had some of the books in L’Engle’s other well-known series about the Austin family, but I remember finding them kind of strange and disorienting, which is odd because they are wholly set on this planet and do not feature centaurs. They’re mostly set in kitchens. You’d think they’d be straightforward—more on this in a moment. I have also long been intrigued by the idea that L’Engle consciously had set her books in two difference universes—The Time Quintet is set in a time she calls kairos (“real time, pure numbers with no measurement”) while the Austin series is chronos (“ordinary wrist-watch, alarm-clock time”). And that there are characters who move between the two is so fascinating. So when I saw the first three Austin books in beautiful recent paperback editions at the library, I signed them all out, and began to embark upon a new reading project, which was discovering Madeleine L’Engle from a different point of view.

Reading Meet the Austins was curious, because it was all very familiar. There were several sentences that I came upon and realize they’d been long ago made indelible upon my mind. I remembered the story from the book’s opening, when Meggy Hamilton comes to live with the Austin family after her pilot father is killed in a plane crash (which also killed his co-pilot, a friend of the Austin family, and his wife was made Meggy’s guardian but she’s a concert pianist who tours the world, so would not be able to provide a stable home life for the child). Possibly the story confused me as a child because it did not go according to trope—Meggy, the orphan, was not remotely plucky. Her presence is a hardship upon the family. Vicky Austin, the book’s narrator, is struggling with questions she’s having trouble answering, and thinking about her place within her family and her family’s place in the wider world. The family is idyllic. The parents are wise and cultured and are interested in their children’s ideas about the state of the world. Their dynamic is similar to the Murry’s, except that Vicky’s father is a family doctor and not an astrophysicist, and hasn’t been trapped inside another dimension. But the conversations they have as a family are the same, as the questions Vicky is grappling with similar to Meg Murry’s. Looking up at the stars and wondering what is our place in the cosmos—except that Vicky is doing so from the vantage point of a comfortable spot on a grassy hill.

I loved Meet the Austins. I found it intelligent and comforting, and I knew that Harriet (age 9.5) would love it too. There is not a plot exactly, instead episodes as the characters move in and out of weeks and days. I loved the way that Vicky understood that her family was a kind of cocoon and the questions she was asking about the world outside it, and her apprehensions were the kind that so many children have (and that I have never entirely been able to abandon). It’s a novel that respects its reader, and I enjoyed reading it so much that for days after I lamented that I did not have those few hours to go through again, when I had sat down with this book and been so thoroughly satisfied.

Meet the Austins was published in 1960. In 1962, L’Engle would publish her most famous work, A Wrinkle In Time, which must have meant that by the following year, when The Moon By Night (the next Austin book) was published, her world was a very different place. The world in general was a different place, however, and The Moon By Night is wholly infused with that ominousness, post-Cuban Missile Crisis and the imminent possibility of a nuclear strike. Also, Vicky Austin is 14, which is never a great age, and the world as she knows it has, in fact, already ended—her family are leaving their small town for a new life in New York City, but first, they’re about to drive across the country, a summer vacation never to be forgotten.

It’s a long journey, and on page 83, Vicky’s sister asks her older brother, ‘Hey, John, couldn’t you just tesser us there?’ and Vicky thinks, “It would have been nice if he could have, like Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, but that as Kipling would say, is another story.” Which is the first place L’Engle’s two universes intersect—I love the idea that Vicky Austin has read A Wrinkle in Time too.

The Moon by Night is remarkable for introducing the most irritating character in all of literature, Zachary Grey, certified beatnik, Holden Caulfield redux, as he’s been kicked out of prep school and calls everyone phoneys. He’s travelling across America with his own parents, who are disinterested and self-absorbed (although you might be too if Zachary Grey was your son). It’s the end of the world as we know it, but Zachary Grey feels fine, and he’s blasé about nuclear annihilation, and patronizes Vicky for her religious leanings. He is an appalling fuckwit, who latches onto Vicky as soon as they meet and calls her Vicky-O, and none of the other Austins can stand him, but Vicky finds him interesting which makes me concerned she’s going to spend her whole life attracted to damaged men who need fixing. He’s also a chauvinist, but who’s not in this novel. When Harriet read Meet the Austins, she was furious about the ways that Vicky is subservient to her brilliant older brother, and the gender dynamics are far more overt in the second book—”Daddy doesn’t like women in pants…” Oh, please. Vicky spends the entire book a passive agent as she’s passed from one jerky boy to the other. Her dad also uses judo kicks to take down a gang of “hoods” attacking their campsite. There’s a prowling bear, deadly floods, and at one point Zachary hides for hours so Vicky will worry come find him, that manipulative bastard, and there is a landslide and they’re trapped for hours, and she doesn’t even let the fact he’s put her life in jeopardy make her consider that she should never ever speak to him ever again.

Does it sound like I didn’t like this book? Not so. Weird ‘sixties slang and other factors aside, I still really loved it. And that I loved it in spite of all the reasons it was terribly annoying is a testament to its value. It’s a novel for a much older reader than Meet the Austins, maybe ideally one who is 39.5 years old and is worried about the state of our world. There is a line in it about Vicky and Zachary’s being the first generation who’s not assured of there being a future, and not the last then, I supposed, and there is some comfort in that, that our world has known peril before. Vicky thinks about her uncle, who was killed in the plane crash in the first book, and the genocide against Native Americans across the country they’re travelling (and it’s remarkable that L’Engle was using the term “genocide” in 1963), and Anne Frank in the Holocaust, and as they travel back east through Canada, she learns about the landslide in Frank, BC, and it haunts her just as much as everything does.

How do you live your life, how can you have faith any, knowing it could all just end at any moment for absolutely no reason? How do you love a world that is home to so much that is just awful? Questions I’m thinking about all the time, so The Moon By Night moved me, decades later. I appreciate too that L’Engle’s religious themes have a universality about them so that the answers apply to those of us who are not Christian, and further that her Christianity is underlined by such largesse, generosity, such grace.

Zachary Grey is one of the characters who appears in subsequent books featuring the Murry/O’Keefes. (Fingers crossed it’s just repeated scenes in which his eyeballs are pecked out by crows.) I want to read them now and see who he is in that other universe, and I look forward to the next Austin book now too, which apparently has its realism shaken a bit with the appearance of aliens. I can’t even… The Young Unicorns is next. I will keep you abreast of my progress.

October 25, 2018

Radiant, Shimmering Light, by Sarah Selecky

Last week, I reread Sarah Selecky’s debut novel, Radiant Shimmering Light, before her panel at the Stratford Writers Festival, which I was moderating. I’d first read the novel back in the winter as a manuscript, and found it strange and fascinating. “Fresh and original, Sarah Selecky’s novel clever satirizes our insta-world but also takes its characters seriously enough to give them an ending that’s moving and transcendent,” so my blurb went. “Deceptively light,” was another blurb, by Lisa Gabriele, and it’s exactly right and what makes Radiant Shimmering Light such a challenging novel. Challenging not in the usual ways—no paragraph breaks or all the characters have names that are adverbs—but instead for how it’s situated in a space between. It’s a satire that takes its characters seriously. This is not Lucky Jim, I mean, absurdity spiralling down into disaster. Which is not to say that book isn’t funny—there is a character called Knigel, for starters. Lifestyle blogs are beautifully skewered by the main character’s friend who runs a blog called “Pure Juliette”,  and who guides her followers with cute ways to freshen up their Easter baskets “with things you already have at home! It’s amazing what you can do with silk flowers, a nip of floral tape, and spray glitter.” The novel’s protagonist, Lilian, attempts to self-actualize alongside the personal development gurus she follows online, whose entrepreneurial sensibilities resonate since she runs her own business painting pet auras. It’s all completely ridiculous—someone else makes “consciousness truffles,” whose gluten-free batter is infused with monk chats. Characters attempt mindfulness by meditating on their cell-phone chimes. The perfect set-up for a joke, all of it, but that would be far too easy. And this is where the challenge comes in.

In our conversation on Saturday, I asked Selecky about this, about the appeal of the narrative space-between realism and satire. Where, as she puts it, the reader is forced to sit in discomfort. But the discomfort is the very point, particularly at a moment when people’s refusal to be uncomfortable has led to dangerous social and political polarization. She talked about how she started with the idea of writing the novel as straightforward satire, but the satire was mean and shallow and she wanted to write something deeper than that. And so Radiant Shimmering Light was born, satire from the inside. She talked about the problematic aspects of online women’s empowerment culture—commodification, cultural appropriation, issues around personal branding—and yet there is something fundamental to the messages as well, messages that do many women a lot of good. “The challenge is to hold both realities at once.”

Considering the ways that books marketed to women are undervalued in a literary sense, it’s not shocking to me that a book about the ways that women are marketed to might not receive the credit it deserves as a sophisticated and multi-faceted novel with literary value. I recall an interview with a Scotiabank Giller jury from a previous year who noted that he’d been able to dismiss certain books out of the gate for being “problematic in their sensibility,” whatever that means, and it’s true that a reader’s first encounter with Lilian Quick might not create a great appreciation for her as a literary character or for the novel as a literary project. Deceptively light, remember? This is a novel about a woman who is silly, and it seems straightforward that such a thing could be so one-dimensional—but this book isn’t. Selecky takes light and lightness, and works it into a novel that is subtly profound. The subtlety not undermining the profoundness, in fact underlining it. The detail is fine, and you have to read closely to see.

I was pleased to see that this year’s Governor General’s Award finalists for fiction includes Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word, a book that left a huge impression on me when I read it, and I read it at the same time I was reading Radiant Shimmering Light. A books whose power is as brutal and difficult as Selecky’s is subtle, but I still see many connections between them. In our Q&A, Henstra talked about her inspiration from a Susan Sontag quote about good fiction existing to “enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.” Henstra shares how she had difficulty finding a publisher because her book too is situated in a space-between and didn’t offer easy answers to questions like, “So what’s the takeaway for feminism?” Both are novels situated in discomfort, books that complicate instead of resolve, books that challenge their readers as they offer compelling reading experiences at once. Serious books that don’t wear their seriousness on their jackets/sleeves, and with women at their centres, so sometimes, to some readers, it’s almost like they never happened at all.

March 14, 2018

CBC Ontario Morning Book Picks

I have been reading so much lately, it’s totally ridiculous, but it means I had a whole lot to talk about on my CBC Ontario Morning books column today. You can listen again on the podcast; I come in at 38.20. Sadly. I ran out of time to talk about Hysteria, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi, which I read on the weekend, but I would have told you that it’s kind of a thriller but so much more than that, a little bit Betty Draper and Mad Men too, about a 1950s’ housewife whose perceptions are called into question (by the reader and everyone) when she starts seeing a ghostly girl and then her young son disappears. Is she really hysterical, as her husband is claiming, or is something much more sinister afoot?

November 2, 2017

Rereading Autumn in autumn.

I returned to Ali Smith’s Autumn because when I read it in April I was as baffled by it as I was entranced. And I returned to it also because it was actually autumn, October: “October’s a blink of an eye. The apples weighing down the tree a minute ago are gone and the tree’s leaves are yellow and thinning. A frost has snapped millions of trees all over the country into brightness. The ones that aren’t evergreen are a combination of beautiful and tawdry, red orange gold the leaves, then brown, then down./ The days are unexpected mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of condensation on the web strings hung between things./ On the warm days it feels wrong, so many leaves falling./ But the nights are cool to cold.” And now it is November, which is the very point.

I finished rereading Autumn and was no less baffled than I was the first time, which normally would frustrate me, but there are so many things in this novel that function as footholds, even when reading makes me totally lost. The characters of Elisabeth and Daniel, the satire of post office bureaucracy, the beautiful writing, the contemporary nature of the setting, its immediacy. (“It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with.”) I got such comfort from that when I read this in the spring, the world being too much with us—and yet somehow it was helpful, a comfort, to find it in a book. Upon rereading I underlined the part (though I underlined many parts) when Elisabeth is reading A Tale of Two Cities and sees her own reality reflected in literature: …it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… And Smith writes, “The words had acted like a charm. They released it all in seconds. They’d made everything happening stand just far enough away.” [Emphasis mine.]

The main character in the novel (apart from the man who is a tree, obviously…) is a lecturer in art history, and art features prominently in the story, particularly the art of Pauline Boty, who was a founder of the British pop-art movement and its only female painter. Both worked in collage and I got the sense that Smith’s novel is kind of a literary homage to her style, figures and ideas from current events cut out of newspapers and magazine and glued onto a surrealist background. The kind of art I’d take my kids to see exhibited, even though we don’t fully understand the project, because so much in the images are recognizable, remarkable, and interesting in their new contexts.

This time when I read I took note of all the instances of “leaf,” and “leaves,” and trees and scrolls. On the remarkable ways that book speak to the world around us (like when Elisabeth is reading Brave New World in the post office and comes across an allusion to Shakespeare, looking up at the very moment to see an advertisement for a Shakespeare commemorative coin on display), what the novel says about neighbours and neighbourliness in the age of Brexit, about what is story and what is fiction and what is real, about drawing lines and blurring lines, divisions and connections. And speaking of lines, my very favourite one in the entire book continues to be, “Whoever makes up the story makes up the world,” which is an idea that continues to fascinate me. When Elisabeth is asked a question, “Why should we imagine that gender matters here?”

Also, “Time travel is real… We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.”

And so, here we are.

March 15, 2017

Revisiting Booky

Harriet and her Brownie group served dinner to a group of homeless and impoverished young people at a local church a few weeks ago, which taught us an essential truth about the face of poverty, which is that it has many faces, people with all kinds of different stories, and people with children and babies. None of the girls could quite get over that—that there had been a baby. Though of course it was the baby’s table everyone wanted to serve at, but even the people who weren’t babies were really nice and everyone was friendly and polite. And then we came home and picked up another chapter of That Scatterbrain Booky, by Bernice Thurman Hunter, a novel we’d been reading together over the past few weeks.

Hunter’s Booky series and her Margaret books had been huge for me growing up, as both a reader and a writer, although until I picked the novel up again and realized how much the stories were now built into my literary DNA, I hadn’t given them that much credit. The series is not exactly unsung—a Booky film was made starring Meaghan Follows about ten years ago, titles are still in print—but there were no copies for sale in the bookstore I was in the other day. And you don’t hear writers talking about Booky, the same way they talk about Anne or Emily, or Alice or even Harriet and Ramona—although a few years back Carrie Snyder included the Booky books on a list of titles that inspired her as a young writer.

One Saturday night though, so happy to be rereading the book and impressed to find that it was such a strong and powerful literary work (which is a thing you discover quickly when you’re reading out loud) I posted a photo of the cover on Instagram. And then my Instagram feed went bonkers. Everyone remembered Booky. Everyone loved Booky. Grown men professing their love for the Booky books and memories of Hunter visiting their school libraries in the 1980s. Everyone had Booky memories to share, the vivid scenes still resonant. There’s something about these books, and all its avid readers should look into revisiting them as an adult.

Because they’re really good. This incredibly strong but chatty first-person narrator who pulls in close and focuses on details (the warmth from the stove on the streetcar as passenger huddled around it, the stripes on the sweaters from the Toronto Star Christmas boxes which the kid who wore them got mocked for, the exact contents of a bag of penny candy) but then pulls out too with a broader perspective (“grandpa would only live three years after that…”) and shows the reader that these are stories told with the benefit of hindsight. The deftness with which Hunter maneuvered this was so impressive, but so too is the story’s gritty edges, which never detract from its buoyant tone. In fact as a young reader I never noticed, but they’re there. Booky’s family can barely support the children they have and (although nobody knows yet) another’s on the way, and she overhears her parents discussing the possibility of her parents giving this baby up for adoption. Strung across the entrance to High Park is a sign announcing that the park is “Gentiles Only.” When Booky’s dad finally finds work as a maintenance man at the chocolate factory, it’s only after the previous holder of that titled has been fatally injured in an industrial accident. Throughout the entire book, the family is this close to being evicted and at one point they actually are. And although the fact of it is breezed by, Booky is severely malnourished and therefore eligible for free milk at school. When her family sits down together at the table, often her parents eat nothing.

So this is far from the Old Toronto nostalgic days-gone-by kinds of stories I remembered Booky for, the kinds of stories Kamal Al Solaylee warned us about in his essay “What You Don’t See When You Look Back.” Although like those sepia-toned images, there aren’t people of colour in Booky’s stories, but they are just outside the frame. And the bygone days are not made sweet in their memory—these were hard times, and people suffered mercilessly. In the ways that so many still do.

By which I mean that when we read Booky the night after serving dinner at the church, the bygone days didn’t seem so bygone after all.

September 6, 2016

On Reading Grace Paley Wrong

IMG_20160906_082800The thing about years, of course, is the way they’re layer upon layer. Today I dropped Harriet off at Grade Two, which is not such a departure from Grade One—same great teacher, same beautiful classroom. And then Iris and I headed down the street, back to playschool, and it occurred to me that it was four years ago today that I first entered the playschool as a member of its community. As I did today, I showed up for my requisite two hours of cleaning to help get our (cooperative) playschool all set for the new school year. It was also the day that Zadie Smith’s NW came out, which I’d had on special order from Book City, but that is neither here nor there. I’d been about five minutes pregnant with Iris at the time, but I didn’t know it for sure—it would be another week or so before my pregnancy would be confirmed.

It was a strange and vivid year, the year that Harriet was three and I was pregnant with Iris. I’ve written before about all the women I met, those hours we spent in the playground not bothering to take our children home for lunch because the conversation was just too fascinating. I remember taking my shoes off on days when it should have been too cold to be doing such things, but the sunshine had rendered the sand hot and glorious, and I liked to bury my feet in it. I remember that warmth, and those hours, and how conversations seemed to unspool, landing in messy piles all around us.

And then tonight I saw that Sarah was reading “Faith in a Tree,” by Grace Paley, and it occurred to me to get my own Collected Paley off the shelf and read Faith again. And reading it, I realized that probably I’ve been reading the story all wrong all these years. That so besotted was I by the idea of co-workers in the mother trade and those mothers in the park, and all their talk, that I hadn’t really paid much attention to the end of the story: “…Then I met women and men in different lines of work, whose minds were made up and directed out of that sexy playground by my children’s heartfelt brains, I thought more and more and every day about the world.” 

I really thought that they’d been it, those mothers in the park. I really had thought she meant that this, the mothers stopping to talk, was the most important conversation. But it wasn’t, her revelation. Faith needs more than that, chatting women lounging in trees. The world needs more than that, at least if we ever expect to do anything about it. Whatever the women in the playground are doing, they’re not thinking more and more and every day about the world.

It doesn’t shock me as much as it might have, to discover that a beloved passage of a story doesn’t mean what I thought it did at all. It is possible that kernel of the truth of the matter had lodged its way into my mind. When I wrote my own post about my co-workers in the mother trade, I remarked on the fleetingness of it all, that those conversations had happened in a moment. A time when I searching for my own moorings as a parent, as a mother, and when the possibilities were still terrifyingly wide-open. I don’t really hang out in playgrounds anymore, not the way I once did, whiling away hours as the sun crossed the sky. There’s always someplace else I’ve got to be, one more thing I’ve got to get to. I suppose you could say I’m thinking more about the world, though it’s not quite so noble as that.

April 21, 2016

Light and darkness, dancing together

IMG_20160421_091515This morning I dropped Iris off at playschool, and noticed pussy willows in a jar on the counter, which took me back to a scary time we went through through just over three years ago now. It was a time in which I learned that it was possible to navigate life even in the presence of one’s deepest fears, and also that doing so sometimes required errands such as an excursion with shopping list consisting only of a bouquet of pussy willows and a tub of chocolate ice cream. I remember that with the pussy willows, I finally began to feel better, and I think I was thinking of A Swiftly Tilting Planet at the time, but I didn’t pick it off the shelf to get the reference.

IMG_20160421_100107But yesterday morning I was walking to school with my seven-year-old neighbour who’s currently in the middle of  A Wrinkle in Time and has the other books in the series before her, and I told her how much A Swiftly Tilting Planet still means to me as an adult. It was the book I picked up in September 2001, after two planes flew into buildings and we wondered if the world as we knew it was entirely gone. I remember the comfort it brought me, the comfort it always has.

Mrs. Murry said, “I remember my mother telling me about one spring, many years ago now, when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were so tense that all the experts predicted nuclear war before the summer was over. They weren’t alarmists or pessimists it was a considered, sober judgement. And Mother said that she walked along the lane wondering if the pussy willows would ever bud again. After that, she waited each spring for the pussy willows, remembering and never took their budding for granted again. 

I took it down off the shelf this morning to find the pussy willows paragraph, and realize that I absolutely have to reread this book again. And I considered how fundamental it might have been in cementing my understanding of the cosmos, the world.

Darkness was, and darkness was good. As was light. Light and darkness dancing together, born together, born of each other, neither preceding, neither following, both fully being in joyful rhythm.

February 17, 2016

On Carol Shields, Rereading, and The Republic of Love


I’ve gone back off the grid in terms of reading, into backlists and rereads. The occasion of Valentines Day inspired me to pick up Shields’ The Republic of Love, which I read last in 2007, according to the note on the inside cover. (Apparently, I was much more organized in 2007.) I wrote a post about it too, and seemed to be as bowled over by the book’s goodness as I was this time (and also was struck between parallels between it and Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, as I’d later see connections between Small Ceremonies and We Need to Talk About Kevin). I don’t remember how much I loved this book back in 2007, but what I do recall and experienced as a faint echo as I read The Republic of Love this time was how much it made me long to go out and write a book just like it. A sad kind of longing it was because my attempts to be Carol Shields at that point had come up very short and resulted in considerable rejections. (I once wrote a story that was a short story glosa with excerpts from a story in Shields’ Various Miracles, and one rejection I received explained that the inclusion of Carol Shields’ prose on the page with my own only made clear how much my prose was not by Carol Shields. Sigh.) This, this, this, I remember thinking, as I read The Republic of Love in 2007. This is what I want to do. And it was something to be recalling that now from the other side as I now read with a novel of my own.

the-stone-diariesI feel like I’ve grown up with Carol Shields. I received The Stone Diaries as a gift in high school from my mom, a lovely little compact hardcover, before all the awards, I think, because it has no stickers, and her biography was still celebrating The Republic of Love having been shortlisted for The Guardian Short Fiction Prize in 1992. And I loved it—it was easy to love. This was makes Shields work so easy to dismiss—as “light,” not serious. It was her world-building that did it for me, the inclusion of actual photos and a family tree, the poetry written by fictional characters. How the photos were (many of them) of Shields’ own family, and this amazing blurring between fact and fiction was fascinating to me. The novel would stand on its own without these additions, but they pushed its edges, its limits, in ways that were wonderful to somebody who is only just discovering what fiction can do.

carol_shieldsUnless remains my favourite of all her books—I went into great detail to explain why in this post from 2011. It’s a book I’ve returned to again and again, and it’s been rich with surprises every time. Eventually, I’d read all her books, her short story collections. I bought Various Miracles in a used bookshop in Kobe in 2003, and remember reading with rapture. Larry’s Party, Happenstance. I reread Small Ceremonies a few years ago, and really loved it—even with her first novel, it was clear that this was a writer with tremendous vision. I loved her collection of letters with Blanche Howard—I’ve read that book twice and intend to return to it throughout my life. There’s so much wisdom from two remarkable women, about living and writing, marriage and motherhood, and it was they who inspired me to pick up Penelope Fitzgerald’s Home, and I’m so pleased that I did. I think that’s also the book in which Shields notes that she’s no longer jealous of others’ literary success (though perhaps that was in Carol Shields: The Arts of a Writing Life), which seemed like an impossible goal for me once upon a time, but I’ve found my way toward it. I was stirred too by the notes about her “talent for friendship”; Shields has been such an inspiration for me as a writer, a mother, a feminist, a friend.

larryI had no idea what to expect when I picked up The Republic of Love last weekend; I didn’t remember much about it. I wasn’t even sure I really wanted to read it because there are so many books waiting for me to read them for the first time, let alone reading this one for the third or fourth. But here were my impressions as I read it. First, I was hooked immediately. My husband was reading a book he was loving, and said to me a while into it, “I’m hooked now.” “I was hooked on this one in the first paragraph,” I replied. Or the first sentence? “As a baby, Tom Avery had twenty seven mothers.” I’d forgotten about that and though it was Larry from Larry’s Party with the 27 mothers, but but I remember now that he had just one mother and she went and committed botulism. Carol Shields is certainly one for memorable prologues. Also remarkable: Tom is the name of Reta’s husband in Unless. I guess Shields had run out of good men’s names, the stolid types, Toms, and Joes. I think a lot about authors who reuse names—Barbara Pym does this. And then I went and read somewhere that there was no meaning behind it: “With me it’s sometimes just laziness,” she wrote to Philip Larkin. “If I need a casual clergyman or anthropologist I just take one from an earlier book.”

project-bookmarkAnother thing that was important was that I’d visited Winnipeg since my last reread of The Republic of Love, which made the book’s sense of place all the more vivid to me. We’d even made a pilgrimage to the Project Bookmark marker on the corner of River Avenue and Osborne Street, speaking of blurring lines between truth and fiction. I’d essentially stood right there inside the passage of the book, and now there were the words on the page after I’d seen them right there in their world, and the effect was amazing.

Shields loved naming characters (gratuitous Toms notwithstanding), creating the webs, the family trees we see in The Stone Diaries. It seems unfathomable that the world of The Republic of Love is created, made-up, rich as it is with friendships and histories, and couples who knew each other since meeting at someone else’s wedding through somebody’s aunt a thousand years ago. We get entire paragraphs of people who turn up at a party whom we never see again in the book, but they add texture to the world of Shields’ love story here, that it’s never just about two people anyway. Because the lovers have parents, and ex-spouses, and ex-boyfriends who have moved back in with their ex-wife whose husband used to be married to the first wife of one’s fiance. A merry-go-round, Shields refers to it.

1399388970354And oh yes, it’s about love: “It’s possible to speak ironically about romance, but no adult with any sense talks about love’s richness and transcendence, that it actually happens, that it’s happening right now, in the last years of our long, hard, lean, bitter and promiscuous century. Even here it’s happening, in this flat, midcontinental city with its half million people and its traffic and weather and asphalt parking lots and languishing flower borders and yellow-leafed trees—right here, the miracle of it.” (Which was precisely what I was getting at here.)

1399388971695I am older than Fay McLeod, heroine of this story—this is weird to me. Though when you are 36 you start being unfathomably older than so many people and it’s totally bizarre. I have been married a decade and have two kids, but still think it’s strange that Fay McLeod is older than me, but that’s mostly because she’s never been older than me before in the entire time I’ve been reading her story, and it’s hard to get my head around that shift. Will I ever read this book and think that Fay McLeod seems young? When I am 53 and she is 35, I wonder? Though I still think that girls in the high school yearbook who were 18 when I was 14 seem more grown up than I’ll ever be, so maybe there is no cure for this affliction.

startleWhat else…. I love the late night radio in this story, perhaps (sadly) the one bit of the novel that is dated because all the local stations would syndicate something cheap for the hours between 12 and 4 am these days. I love those voices late in the night, the call-ins, and everybody with an opinion, something to say. I love the way that time sweeps here, through nearly a year, I think. How so much happens off-page, in the margins. The voices—how Shields lets them have their space without explaining that they’re there for. I love the way an aerogram letter is essential to the plot. The different points of view, misunderstandings, what is understood but doesn’t have to be said. How there is no plot, except that love is the plot. That one can make a plot with good, decent people who aren’t terrible to each other. This, this, this, was what I meant when I said that this was the kind of book I wanted to write.

There is a lovely line by Elizabeth Hay in her essay from the PEN anthology, The Writing Life, that I underlined when I read it first in 2006: “What I’m doing is catching a ride on the coattails on literature.” YES. It occurred to me too how foundational all of Shields’ work has been for me, finding its way into my literary DNA and while I’m still no Carol Shields, her stories and ideas and preoccupations are echoing away in every paragraph I write. If not for her and all her work, I might be whiling away my time in a literary no-womansland.

PS I am excited about Startle and Illuminate, a new book of Shields’ advice on writing, which is forthcoming this April.

October 7, 2015

Rereading Anne’s House of Dreams

annes-house-of-dreamsI’ve been reading the Anne books as long as I’ve known how to read, though my preferences among them are a bit curious as Anne aficionados go. Anne’s House of Dreams was always my favourite, followed by Anne of Ingleside, because I found her children incredibly amusing. Rainbow Valley I could take or leave, but of course I loved Rilla of Ingleside, which seemed a proper grown-up book. Anne of Ingleside didn’t particularly, however, but it did permit glimpses inside Anne’s marriage, which I was fascinated by. (“They sleep in different bedrooms,” I said to my mother one summer day at the locks at the Rosedale Canal. We were with family friends. “So how did they manage to make babies?” I was told we’d talk about it later.) Anne of Ingleside is the one book of all my Anne book whose binding has completely come apart, which isn’t that surprising considering it was a crappy Seal paperback (and oh, good gracious, the typos! The typos!), although the others are holding up okay. It is possible that I have never reread Anne of Avonlea or Anne of the Island. Grown-up Anne was always more interesting to me than her youthful counterpart, although I’ve reread Anne of Green Gables twice in the last ten years and it’s only deepened my appreciation for its goodness and depth.

And so last week I turned again to House of Dreams, because we’re reading it for our book club. And I was a bit surprised to find that reading it was nothing but a pleasure, and it was rich with humour and surprises. And both, in the case of the regular references to suicide by Miss Cornelia Bryant: “Doctor Dave hadn’t much tact, to be sure—he was always talking of ropes in houses where someone had hanged himself.” There’s a lot of dark humour in the book, and darkness full stop in regards to poverty and status of women in the village families. Anne and Gilbert’s home stands in contrast to to the world around them, just like Captain Jim’s light house.

And yes, Captain Jim, the one bit I was just not as taken by. He was a bit like an idiot savant and I kept wondering about his sexlessness. I wondered a lot about sex in general, actually, and have a better understanding of why fan fiction was invented because I would actually like to read Anne and Gilbert porn—wouldn’t you? Anyway, I was relieved when LM dialled it back whenever I fear that he was about to launch into a sea yarn. There is no book I’d ever want to read less than Captain Jim’s life book, and while I didn’t feel relief, exactly, when he crosses the bar, I wasn’t worry to see the last of him.

The book I do want to read is this one though, about Anne and Gilbert’s first year of marriage. About Anne’s longing for motherhood, which is a subtle but persistent force throughout the book (and even violently so on the part of her friend, Leslie Moore). It goes unspoken, but it’s remarkable that in having a child, Anne would meet a blood relative for the very first time, which even in a world lousy with kindred spirits has to mean something. At the beginning of the book she witnesses Diana holding her own daughter:

“cuddling Small Anne Cordelia with the inimitable gesture of motherhood which always sent through Anne’s heart, filled with sweet unuttered dreams and hopes, a thrill that was half pure pleasure and half a strange ethereal pain.”

The beginning of the book is wonderful, a homecoming to Avonlea, Anne and Gilbert’s wedding the first Green Gables has ever seen. The prose is still so familiar to me from when I read it years and years ago, and I can anticipate each next line as I encounter it: the bit about the bird that sang during the ceremony. Marilla is stiff and deadpan, and Mrs. Rachel Lynde is still every bit herself, and we’re acquainted with characters from previous books (although not Windy Poplars, which was published after House of Dreams, although it takes place before, making it seem as though her friends from Summerside did not making the guest list).

They move to Four Winds Harbour, near the village of Glen St. Mary. There they meet the neuter seafaring Captain Jim, and Miss Cornelia Bryant in her ostentatious wraps and declarations of, “Isn’t it just like a man?” And Leslie Moore, whose name I always found so euphonic, and quite fitting that her husband was called Dick. Indeed. Tragic Leslie, who hates Anne for her fortune as much as she admires her as a friend, and Montgomery’s acknowledgement of that complexity in female relationships is really quite profound. I also rejoiced at the birth of Bertie Shakespeare Drew, who would come to be an important character in the following book.

I always found the romance between Anne and Gilbert most endearing, and I imagine that my greatest attraction reading the book when I was young was imagining that somebody might love me as much as Gilbert loves Anne. This is also why, while I am lucky that somebody loves me much indeed today. I often admonish him for not voicing his interior monologue using phrases like, “I can hardly believe that you are mine.” (My husband believes I am his too much entirely. Poor man.) It is possible that Gilbert Blythe gave me an entirely unrealistic standard of courtly love.

I don’t recall being disappointed by the Anne in Anne’s House of Dreams, though I can certainly see why one would be and I really liked Sarah Emsley’s post about Anne’s dismissal of her writing talents in the novel. Kate Sutherland (who, lucky us, is in our book club!) address this too in a post a few years ago, suggesting that Anne had not let herself down so much as readers had misidentified her as a writer. She had had other goals for herself, although yes, it would have been nice if literature proper in the novel wasn’t so gendered. And while Anne does go the route of plucky childhood heroines and  settles down into conventionality ala Laura Ingalls, Dorothy Ellen Palmer made a great point on Facebook about the importance of seeing Anne as an adopted child whose spiritedness may have been a way to deal with trauma, loss and insecurity, and that the trajectory of this character to a happy and stable adult, wife and mother, is incredibly remarkable. (See also: Alison Kinney’s essay, “The Uses of Orphans.”)

What has always been most striking to me about the book is Mongomery’s depiction of the stillbirth of Anne’s first baby, this indefatigable character overcome by heartbreak, and her pain is so real. The experience was close to its author’s heart, giving an extra layer of poignance to the narrative, as well as authenticity. Striking too is Marilla’s fear at the loss of her own daughter, and her relief when Anne’s life is saved. Her inability to articulate her emotions too: “‘Time will help you,” said Marilla, who was racked with sympathy but could never learn to express it in other than age-worn formulas.” And Leslie Moore who dares to say, “I envy Anne… and I’d envy her even if she had died! She was a mother for one beautiful day. I’d gladly give my life for that!” Which is neither kind nor wise but something beyond either. Anne’s anger as well at the idea her daughter was in “a better place.” And when she’s told that one day it will hurt less and she replies, “The thought that it may stop hurting sometimes hurts me worse than all else.”

Although the novel’s most heartbreaking part of all takes place when we learn in chapter 35 that Gilbert Blythe is an ardent Conservative—but of course, and so was Matthew, we remember. But then after 18 years, the Tories lose to a sweeping majority by the Grits, which does to show that anything can happen. Captain Jim himself redeemed by the fact that he wasn’t a Conservative himself—though he dies. Hopefully not a comeuppance, but I do hope that somehow Montgomery’s narrative is some kind of political forecast. More accurate than some polls, I am sure. It doesn’t have to be the Liberals necessarily, but please, in two weeks, let us be able to say, paraphrasing Captain Jim, “After nearly ten years of Tory mismanagement, this down-trodden country is going to have a chance at last.”

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