May 7, 2013
Right now as spring arrives and family life moves back out of doors, it is a perfect time to share some books that connect readers to the local and which affirm the goodness of life in the city.
In Lucia’s Neighbourhood by Pat Shewchuk and Marek Cole: This picture book based on the NFB film Montrose Avenue tells the story of “the ballet of the good city sidewalk” (as quoted by Jane Jacobs) in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood. The book opens with the epigraph by Jacobs, and then goes to render the urban visionary’s ideas in a way that a child can easily understand. A fabulous celebration of city life, In Lucia’s Neighbourhood is most remarkable for its illustrations which are so utterly Toronto: streetcars, three-panelled windows and wrought-iron porches. How wonderful to encounter one’s own world within the pages of a book.
Maybelle the Cable Car by Virginia Lee Burton: This one’s not a Toronto book, but in some ways it may as well be. San Francisco’s iconic cable cars are under threat, as Big Bill the Bus explains to Maybelle: “I just heard the City Fathers say/ the cable cars must go…/ that you’re too old and out of date/ much too slow and can’t be safe/ and worst of all YOU DON’T MAKE MONEY./ What they want is Speed and Progress/ and E-CON-OMY…” San Franciscans don’t respond well to the potential loss of their cable cars, forming a citizen’s committee to save them. Petitions lead to a referendum, and the cable cars are preserved. “We, the people, are the City. Why can’t we decide?” And with that, your child’s political foundation is laid.
Jonathan Cleaned Up and Then He Heard a Sound by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko: Another book that seems eerily prescient of the current state of Toronto politics. “Subways, subways, subways!” indeed, and somehow a station has appeared in Jonathan’s house. “If the subway stops here, then it’s a subway station,” Jonathan is told by a TTC conductor who has a relaxed emphasis on customer service and instructs Jonathan to go to City Hall if he doesn’t like it. When Jonathan gets there, the Mayor has run out for lunch. Wandering the empty corridors of City Hall, he comes across an old man crying behind “an enormous computer machine.” Turns out the computer is broken and the poor man behind it is responsible for running the entire city. Jonathan gets him to move the subway station in exchange for four cases of blackberry jam, demonstrating that sometimes civic engagement (and bartering) is the only way to get things done.
Jelly Belly by Dennis Lee: This one is not the most obvious contender for the list, but I happened to be reading it soon after reading Edward Keenan’s Some Great Idea, and noticed some parallels between the two books, absurdest story-telling aside. Lee gives us poems not only poems about garbage men and traffic jams, but also a reference to David Crombie in “The Tiny Perfect Mayor” and another poem called “William Lyon Mackenzie.”
A Big City Alphabet by Allan Moak: I loved this book as a child, and now I love that my daughter is growing up in the very places Moak’s paintings illustrate. City kids will recognize their favourite parks, Kensington Market, the AGO, laneways, variety stores, and other familiar spots. (Hint: A gorgeous print of “I is for Island Ferry” is for sale for $5 at St. Lawrence Market’s Market Gallery, along with other prints from the city’s art collection).
Who Goes to the Park by Warabe Aska: We picked up this book as a library discard, a most excellent find, as used copies are hard to come by. Fortunately, a few copies are still circulating in the library system. In his beautiful paintings which manage to perfectly meld realism and the ethereal (as all the best parks do, really), Aska tells the story of Toronto’s High Park throughout the four seasons, and of all the people and other creatures which are part of life there. (Image courtesy of the Osborne Collection’s online art exhibit).
How to Build Your Own Country by Valerie Wyatt and Fred Rix: Older kids with an interest in politics and civic life will appreciate this multi-award-winning book from the Citizen Kid Series. It’s a step-by-step guide to building a nation from scratch, and also serves as a fantastic illustration of how our society and those of other countries are structured–however precariously.
Watch This Space by Hadley Dyer and Marc Ngui: Another non-fiction book for older readers, this one about “designing, defending and sharing public spaces.” This one is a nice extension of In Lucia’s Neighbourhood, with references to Montrose Avenue and Jane Jacobs, even, but also takes on a global perspective and discusses how public space is used differently around the world. It”s a vibrant and engaging book with all kinds of suggestions about how to employ its many lessons out on the street.
March 16, 2013
This week was our first March Break, which turned out to be legendarily good thanks to Stuart taking the week off too. It’s funny how spending a week with my child and another adult is a vastly superior prospect to just kid and me. We had a very wonderful time and were careful to never travel too far from home. We took care too to spend a lot of time hanging around doing nothing, which isn’t to say that we didn’t get up to some excellent adventures. We are also very pleased to have achieved our goal of going out for lunch every single day.
Sunday was our trip to the Maple Sugar Bush, which was sweet and sunshiney. Monday we decided to go crazy and visit the library (it’s true! I know we sound reckless and wild, but it’s just the way we are) which was fun because Stuart doesn’t usually get to come on our weekly visits. And then we had lunch at Caplansky’s Deli, because all the experts say that pregnant women should ingest giant mountains of smoked meat.
On Tuesday, we had lunch at the new Montreal-style bagel place in Kensington Market, which is so so delicious, and then we walked to the Allan Gardens Conservatory to see palm trees and cacti and other green things. Wednesday morning was devoted to having holes poked in my neck, but things got better afterwards. We had lunch at Fanny Chadwicks (our favourite local joint) and then spent the afternoon on the couch watching Pete’s Dragon.
On Thursday, we visited the Textile Museum of Canada (with our free MAP pass) to see the Marimekko Exhibit, whose designs are right up my alley. (I got a Marimekko scarf!). And then we had lunch at St. Lawrence Market, pure deliciousness. We also visited the Market Gallery and picked up a print of I is for Island Ferry to hang on our wall. And then Harriet had a meltdown because we wouldn’t buy her a painting of horses, and cried on the streetcar all the way home (which everyone else found absolutely charming). Later that afternoon, Harriet cheered up and we all visited the midwives, and were thrilled to hear our baby’s heartbeat and to have it confirmed that Baby is growing well.
And then there was Friday. We had a reservation for 3 for tea at the Windsor Arms Hotel. Afternoon tea is my favourite thing in the world, but we haven’t taken Harriet since my birthday 2 years ago when she kind of ruined it for everyone. But she’s bigger now, and more importantly, our March Break had been excellent training in dining out. And she was an absolute star. Staff looked a bit dubious when we confirmed that Harriet would be having her own tea, that we wouldn’t have her “nibble off our plates” as they advised. And we’re glad we didn’t, because then we wouldn’t have been able to eat anything. Harriet had her own pot of apple-mango tea, discovered that she LOVED tiny sandwiches (and even cucumbers), and was an absolutely delightful afternoon tea companion, consenting to have tiny cakes cut into three so we could all have a taste of each. The scones were wonderful, I was so so proud of Harriet, and we all three had a very good time. I think we might keep this kid around
January 20, 2013
For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll inform you that I actually appear as a character in Edward Keenan’s new book Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto. Keenan, a Senior Editor at The Grid, writes in his book about how the Rob Ford spectacle has galvinized a whole segment of the population to take an interest in city politics, of this effect on his own career: “…before, my regular readership consisted largely of insiders at city hall, and political activists. Since Ford was elected, tens of thousands of readers click through online to soak up anything I write about the mayor.” And that’s me, one of tens of thousands. (I’m the one waving.) I didn’t even vote in the 2006 municipal election, the only election I’ve ever sat out since I came of age, but I remember being busy that day, not seeing the point. That election result seemed inevitable, but since Rob Ford took office in October 2010, nothing is inevitable anymore. It suddenly seems worth paying attention to what’s going on around us.
I think I’d be compelled to pick up any book whose author acknowledges that his thinking about Toronto has been influenced by Amy Lavender Harris’s Imagining Toronto. Amy has since become a dear friend, but we’d only met in passing when I fell in love with her book back in 2010, marvelling at how markedly she demonstrates that a city is constructed of stories as much as concrete and steel. Keenan takes this as the premise for his book, whose opening line is, “I have this notion that cities are just a collection of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” Near to the end of the book, he writes, “The answers, then, are in the process, just as the themes and lessons of any story lie not in its conclusion but in the unfolding of the plot.” So there you have it: plot. This is not some dry polemic. There is movement here; we get somewhere. Which is exactly what you would expect from a book with a subway on its cover.
Some Great Idea is the history of Toronto since amalgamation in 1998, the story of mayors Lastman, Miller and Ford. Though Keenan emphasizes that Toronto has always resisted being defined by its leadership, so the story goes beyond these three figures. Which isn’t to say that the city hasn’t been marked by personalities, and Keenan selects William Lyon Mackenzie, RC Harris (who was apparently very different from the figure Ondaatje portrayed him as), and Jane Jacobs as three individuals who resisted convention, rebelled against the system and helped to shape the city we live in today.
It’s also the story of Keenan’s own engagement with civic life, in the last ten years in particular (and in this way, Some Great Idea is a nice companion to Samantha Bernstein’s memoir Here We Are Among the Living which documents this same period in Toronto). He’s been in a privileged place, telling urban stories at a time when an awareness of urbanism had taken hold of the city like never before: this was the birth of Trampoline Hall, Spacing magazine, Richard Florida, the Dufferin Grove Park pizza oven, and Keenan ties these factors all together as the story of this place. It’s his place, where he lived in an industrial loft with the woman who is now his wife, where his children were born, where he and his wife became homeowners. It’s a story too that is more complicated than the personas of the men in power suggest–there was a great deal of progressiveness in the city under Mel Lastman thanks to figures on council like Jack Layton; David Miller’s legacy was far more positive than most of us remember; Rob Ford’s “leadership” has engaged Torontonians like nothing before.
Keenan shows that Toronto too is a much larger place than the downtown core highlighted in most civic discussions. He gives the example of Woburn, a neighbourhood within this supposed “city of neighbourhoods”. Except that Woburn isn’t a neighbourhood at all, but it’s the name given to the area where Keenan spent his teen years, near Markham and Lawrence in Scarborough. He has it stand for the inner-suburbs in general. It’s an area that grew up entirely differently than the downtown neighbourhoods, with different interests and priorities, whose populations no longer live the lifestyles the area was so rigidly planned for. You have to understand a neighbourhood like this, its strengths and weaknesses, in order to understand how Rob Ford was elected into office, to understand why someone who lives in that part of the city might see themselves as as taxpayer before citizen, if they even define as citizen at all.
The book’s title is taken from a quotation by Benjamin Disraeli: “A great city whose image dwells in the memory of man, is the type of some great idea.” The peculiarity of this diction, the vagueness of “some” great idea unspecified points to the book’s one weakness, a kind of muddled conception of itself and its purpose. I longed for Keenan to grasp his narrative with more confidence, for less journalistic objectivity. It wasn’t always clear where the story was going, but then Keenan himself was the one who wrote that unfolding not conclusion is the very point. And I will take it.
Because I learned so much about Toronto from this book, its history and its present. Keenan posits diversity as the city’s great strength, and goes on to define a city’s “diversity” as being about so much more than the ethnic backgrounds of its people. He closes with his theory of a city as something ever in the process of being born–”Inventing Toronto”, then, in addition to imagining it. The city as a story each of us is telling every time we stroll, cycle or drive down one of its streets.
Other Toronto links:
-My review of Rosemary Aubert’s Firebrand, “Loving the mayor is a bit like that.”
November 25, 2012
July 17, 2012
We do a lot of documenting and celebrating urban family life here at Pickle Me This, usually through a literary lens. Our family is quite passionate about engaging with the city, which is why we’ve been re-enacting Allan Moak’s A Big City Alphabet for the past year and a half. See also recent post Great City Picture Books and last year’s On urban picture books and concepts of home. We love the city so much that we don’t just live here–we read here too.
Last week, it was suggested that downtown Toronto is not an appropriate place for families, for children to grow up. I don’t actually think the suggestion pertained to leafy residential streets like mine, but we’re still downtown, don’t have a lick of sod (though the front garden is amazing), and we’re removed from the ground. And it’s a good life, with so many opportunities for every-day adventures. Clearly, other parents agree, which is why the Downtown Kids tumblr is such a delight to read. A compilation of letters from people who are raising kids all over the city, the site is a celebration of neighbourhoods, of city parks, storekeepers who know your name, and wonderful things like free-range pianos, museums, ferry-boats and community gardens.
Instead of writing off certain areas for family life, I do wonder how much better off we’d all be if we worked to make sure that everywhere was an appropriate place for kids to grow. I don’t think the kids would be alone in benefitting.
July 4, 2012
If ever there was a centre to my personal geography, I suspect that the Toronto Islands would be it. My grandparents used to take me there– I remember the day they bought me a $13 day-pass to the Centreville amusement park, and it felt like being handed a key to the world. I’ve rode that ferry with at least 3 different boyfriends, which is particularly significant when you note how few boyfriends I’ve ever had in total. The Islands were key to my development as a feminist, as a person– I remember the liberation of fleeing the city on my bicycle to read Mrs. Dalloway on a south-facing beach, and how no one in the whole world knew where I was. Later that same summer, I swam naked at Hanlan’s Point and felt more powerful and fabulous than I had ever felt in my life.
I spent my 26th birthday on Ward’s Island, with friends who braved a 90 minute-long wait at the ferry docks because I didn’t have a phone so they couldn’t call to cancel once they wait had got ridiculous. We had dinner at the Rectory Cafe on our 3rd anniversary, and it was really the most tremendous thing, to jump on a ferry boat after work, such an extraordinary way to spend a Wednesday. We’ve taken out of town guests there, had picnics with friends, partaken many times in Wards Island ice cream, played frisbee, rode our bikes, once lost a three-legged race at a company picnic (against children), and shivered and swam in the lake.
We’ve gone every year at least once since Harriet was born, though our visit last weekend was the first one in which she was old enough to appreciate island goodness. We all love the ferry boats, which we know best from Allan Moak’s Big City ABC (I being for Island Ferry, of course). We spent our morning at Centreville, whose day-pass hasn’t been $13 for many years, but is still great value and we had a wonderful time riding the carousel, log flume, tea-cups, train, swan-boats and antique cars. Harriet couldn’t quite fathom that she’d entered a world in which she was permitted to drive.
After, we had our picnic on the banks of the lagoon, bread and cheese and fresh strawberries, then took a trek over to the Franklin Children’s Garden where Harriet had a fabulous time spotting the characters she knows from the Franklin books, watering the plants in the garden plots, and tracing her way along the snail trail. Then it was time for splash-padding and sand-digging, and re-applying our sunscreen. As the day got long, we took a long walk along the boardwalk to the Rectory Cafe for dinner. And when we were finished, we approached the Ward’s Island docks just as the boat was arriving which we boarded so it could take us home, exhausted but revelling in the goodness of a perfect day.
“Neither entirely land or water, but containing elements of both, the Toronto Islands are a fitting site for memorial rituals because their fluctuating sands reflect the fleeting passage of life, buffeted by storms of fortune and bracketed by the permeable border between here and the hereafter… Without mountains to serve as an urban muse, the islands have become the city’s sublime. Visiting the islands, valuing them, Torontonians experience something truly akin to transcendence.” –Amy Lavender Harris, Imagining Toronto
June 5, 2012
While I am quite familiar with the griffin and the lion flanking the entrance to the Lillian H. Smith Library, it was only today that I discovered the owl. It’s on the front of the building toward the west end, sort of hidden behind a sign on the sidewalk and I’d never noticed it before as I charged along the sidewalk, stroller in hand, hurrying home in time for lunch and nap-time. But Harriet has taken to walking, and as a result, our routes along the sidewalk have become much more meandering. Which is kind of annoying, but how brilliant when it yields a treasure. I have no doubt that wandering with Harriet will improve my city sight.
And just when I thought the Lillian H. Smith Library couldn’t be any more wonderful…
May 31, 2012
Now here is a book that our entire family can love, though not immediately, because after I picked it up at the bookstore last Thursday evening, I read it all through dinner and didn’t talk to anybody. Which was kind of annoying, but when I finally shared the book, they understood. Even the three year old, who found the pictures fascinating and absorbing, context not really being the point of their appeal. Full Frontal T.O.: Exploring Toronto’s Architectural Vernacular collects a series of photos by Patrick Cummins who’s been documenting Toronto’s street-scapes since the 1980s. Context is provided by way of Shawn Micallef’s pithy text. The photos show how the same city blocks have changed over time in some ways, and remained the same in others– the gist of the approach is shown on the Full Frontal blog.
The black and white images of single building or blocks changing over time is an urban time machine, showing patterns of decay and gentrification, or stagnation, in other cases. Interspersed throughout the book are full colour spreads of buildings grouped by theme– dead stores, semi-detached houses, gothic cottages, DIY cottages (which is my favourite– these buildings fascinate me), variety stores. And the effect of all of this is make me realize how little I actually see of the city around me. We walk its streets as if we’re sleeping, and then turn to a book like this to find so much that is familiar, so much that is in my neighbourhood, so many buildings that I’ve wondered about (like this one!) but it never occurred me to take curiosity further than that.
Every time I’ve opened this book, I’ve discovered something new– my ex-boyfriend’s old house, places right around the corner, blocks of streets I used to walk down daily, and lines like, “It’s good to stick your head out of a window sometimes because, apart from looking out of, that’s what they’re made for,” a critique of Toronto’s ubiquitous three-panelled windows. And in this way Full Frontal T.O. is a simulacrum of the city itself– you never encounter it the same way twice.
April 26, 2012
As it was when I first read this book in 2008, the plot is weak, but then plot is not the point in Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down, which is this year’s One Book Toronto read and also one of the most evocative Toronto books I’ve read ever. And it’s been a funny week on my end, nothing dire, much that’s lovely, but just very busy and divorced from the strict routine my life is constructed around usually. Yesterday, I rode the subway so many times I bought a day-pass, and it was a strange thing to be reading this book on the TTC and carrying it through other places where some its most important scenes are set. It was a strange thing also to come home from a gathering where emotions were particularly heightened, and I kept thinking about the line on page 128, “our lives marked always by the proximity of others.”
It’s such an atmospheric book, and the atmosphere keeps stealing into my own. Today I felt like Alex does: “…everything now seemed to assimilate into the city’s larger narrative.” Or rather, the city assimilating into Maggie Helwig’s narrative. It’s remarkable, isn’t it, the curious places where fact and fiction meet. Today I encounter the newspaper headline, “Students, staff at Scarborough elementary school fall ill”. ““They did a thorough inspection of the school and carbon monoxide or any other airborne problems were deemed not to be the cause,” said… spokesman for the Toronto Catholic District School Board”. And even the abortion clinic scenes, and today’s attack on Canadian women’s reproductive rights.
“So it was like that now, catastrophe inevitable at the most empty moments. Everyone waiting, almost wanting it, a secret, guilty desire for meaning. Their time in history made significant for once by that distant wall of black cloud.”
And it’s funny because my reaction to this book upon first read was that the Toronto under siege depicted felt so foreign to me– I’d missed the SARS epidemic, and the big black-out. But Helwig’s city feels more familiar now, and not just the police brutality since this happened, or how much awful the world is in 2012 as compared to how it was in 2008 (which is much). More amusingly, there’s the scene where the pigeon gets into the hospital, which definitely means more since this happened (and the birds! How I have to reread Headhunter).
But I think basically I’ve just been overwrought this last day or so and that the weather has been funny, but still. What crazy things fiction can do to our minds, and the innumerable ways our stories appear to affect the world.
March 4, 2012
The thing about walking to St. Lawrence Market is that the trek justifies a lunch of a sweet cheese bagel, peameal bacon sandwich, banana crepe, cabbage roll, pierogies, a smoothie, a pickle on a stick, and a pepperette made of elk meat. All shared between three people, of course, which is further justification. We spent a splendid morning there yesterday, made even better for a stop at Ben McNally Books en-route, which was the first bookshop in six we’d found to be carrying Kyo Maclear’s Virginia Wolf, which just came out this week. We had big plans to take the subway home, because for Harriet, transit is always a trip’s highlight, but the subway was closed to due a broken watermain, so we had to haul the stroller onto the streetcar. Which turned out to be much more fun anyway because on a streetcar there’s a view out the window.