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May 8, 2017

Delicate Things Are Suffering

It rained this weekend, after raining all week, and I took the train east to Kingston to see Lake Ontario creeping up onto the shore, lapping the feet of picnic tables and swelling around metal garbage cans. Away from the shore, farmer’s fields had turned into small lakes of their own, trees and fence-posts standing in the water. It was strange to be reading this book not long after Margaret Drabble’s latest, The Dark Flood Rising, such concerns also present in two other books I’ve been reading lately, both short story collections, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost and Carleigh Baker’s Bad Endings.

In Simpson’s book, a collection of songs and stories that follow on Islands of Decolonial Love, which I read awhile back, Lake Ontario features as a character—“We call the lake Chi’Niibish, which means big water, and we share this brilliant peacemaker with the Mohawks….”

She is full, too full, and she’s tipsy from the birth control pills, the plastics, the sewage, and the contraband that washes into her no matter what. She is too full and overflowing and no one saw this coming like no one saw Calgary flooding, even though every single one of us should have.

In this story, “Big Water,” the lake is over-spilling its banks, drinking up the city. The beginning of a re-creation story, as  flood stories often are. The people in the city are trying to understand what is happening, but “the predictors are being fed a string of variables in which they can only predict unpredictability.”

Things are on the edge, askew, as they are in every story in Carleigh Baker’s debut collection, which features rushing rivers and waves splashing on the shore—not to mention an epigraph by Lee Maracle, “Fish is the hub of all our memories,” which reminded me of Zoe Todd’s Walrus Talk on Fish and Indigenous Law (“…fish in my home territory are political agents embedded in complex relations with human and more than human beings”). Although it’s the plight of bees that feature even more predominantly in this collection, the perilousness of the specie’s situation, the mystery of colony collapse disorder. “Delicate things are suffering,” is a line from “Grey Water,” the one story in this collection that is actually about drought, beside the ocean, no less, that wild and fantastic body of water, and we see the irony of the situation.  So too when a leaky toilet sends water rushing through the house, down the walls, pooling in the light fixtures. But not a drop to drink.

Chi’Niibish in Simpson’s story is that rare thing, a lake capable of sending text messages, but this connection between the land and technology is not so rare in either of these books. In fact, it’s a disregard for this connection that has allowed the delicate things to suffer. The stories in Baker’s book are very urban, set in Vancouver for the most part and the characters who venture into nature find themselves strangers in a strange land—a young woman not long out of rehab who finds herself catching salmon whose eggs will be harvested to ensure the species survival; the character who leaves her job at Wal-Mart to work on an apiary; the couples on a midnight mountain hike in the Yukon during the solstice; the unhappy couple on a canoe trip just past the Arctic Circle. This last one from the story, “Moosehide,” which has the most perfect ending, which is also the perfect ending to the book. Because bad endings make for good endings, story-wise, leaving possibilities open, the characters on the cusp of something, always something around the next corner, a blessing and a curse.

“….and we almost always survive” concludes the final sentence in Simpson’s “Big Water,” underlining the ways in which modern Indigenous stories are so often ones of resilience and survival. Not a good ending, necessarily, because why should they have to be, and the only thing worse would be if they weren’t, but still, here they are. In “Plight,” characters begin tapping maple trees in an upper-class neighbourhood, the kind of place where “they get organic, local vegetables delivered to their doors twice weekly, in addition to going to the farmers’ market on Saturday.” The narrators tell us, “We know how to do this so they’ll be into it… Let them bask in the plight of the Native people so they can feel self-righteous.” In “Doing the Right Thing,” an Indigenous woman enrolls in a gun safety class packed with rednecks. In “Akiden Boreal,” a woman relinquishes everything to connect with the land of her ancestors. In “Circles Upon Circles,” a family takes its children to harvest wild race and must face the wrath of racist cottagers.

As seems fitting in a book in which a lake is capable of texting, these are also stories of selfies, hashtags and Instagram feeds. In “22.5 Minutes,” a character attempts to divert herself from thoughts of love with a list of diversions, including, “Kate Middleton” and “I’ve Never Not Once Gotten Along With People Named Rachel.” In “Coffee,” another counts down to the moment she’ll be meeting someone she’s developed a relationship with online. And “Situation Update” is a collection of reports from a moment resembling the Alberta Floods of 2013. “Banff is flooding in the middle of summer because of global warming and probably this is the new reality.”

Which brings me back to all the water, the rain and the fish. Everything is connected, as the stories in both these works demonstrate. The end connected to the beginning, even, or at least the beginning of something new.

June 1, 2016

Little Labors, by Rivka Galchen

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My littlest and lastest child turns three on Sunday, which means that we no longer have a baby. I sleep all night and in the morning the only people in my bed are the people who are supposed to be there. Everyone in our household uses the toilet. My husband and I go out often and leave our children with a babysitter. On Friday, I left my family for twenty-four hours and they got along perfectly well without me, all of which are details that might seem perfectly mundane, but we’ve had to come a long way to get here. And with my children being (very deliberately) four years apart, I didn’t even suffer babies with the perfect intensity that other women do (and some of them don’t even call it suffering!). I went out for dinner last night with my friend who had three under two—she’s still recovering. It was seven years ago, but I still recall quite vividly how becoming a mother blew my universe apart.

And sometimes I think I’m over it. While in the years after Harriet was born, I was entirely preoccupied with the politics of motherhood, these ideas don’t fascinate me the way they once did. I’m interested in Suzanne Buffam’s The Pillow Book because of the narrative possibilities that motherhood has to offer literature, structurally speaking, and also because it was very good and surprising, but not because mothers and motherhood aren’t inherently interesting to me anymore. Never mind that I edited an entire book about them (which I still think is pretty damn interesting, but still). As other women become mothers and are discovering the uncanny strangeness and unfathomability of the motherverse for the very first time, I have to remind myself to be patient with them, with their fascinations. Just like other women were patient with me, as I was thinking these thoughts as though I were the first woman to ever think them.

“…and so after I had the baby, I found myself in the position (now interested in babies) of those political figures who come to insights others had reached decades ago only after their personal lives intersected with an “issue,” like, say, Dick Cheney, with his daughter, who married a woman.” —Rivka Galchen, Little Labors

All of which means that I didn’t really think I needed to read Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors. I’d read Buffam’s book two weeks ago anyway, another book born out of new mother panic. Also informed by Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, from eleventh century Japan. But then the New York Times review of Galchen’s book was most intriguing. And then I actually saw the book, which is this gorgeous little package that fits perfectly in your pocket or your tiny purse, and I just had to have it. I started reading it on the flight home from Montreal, and fell totally, completely in love.

Imagine then Buffam’s book, but written by an acclaimed prose stylist instead of a poet. Each piece is a mini essay on motherhood, womanhood, the nature of babies, the nature of babies in literature, and how women relate to each other, and to the world, and about how going about the world with a baby is an altogether different experience than being without one. The pieces are terrifically funny, rich with surprising insights, and disclosing just the right details while withholding enough to maintain an element of mystery. (In the very first essay I ever published about motherhood, for example, I am shining a flashlight into my vagina within the first few paragraphs. Rivka Galchen never does this. Or at least if she does, she doesn’t let us know.) Sarah Ruhl in the Times writes of Galchen’s “sleight of hand—something only partially revealed — so that the fragments glow more.” (Presumably not with the aid of a flashlight.)

These fragments are preoccupied with the poster for a Keanu Reeves flop; the tiresome anecdotes we tell our friends about our babies presuming they’ll be interested (and once those friends have babies, they even actually are); a mention of the woman who drowned her five children; a horrible woman whom Galchen regularly encounters in her building’s elevator who has strong feelings she must articulate about her baby’s size; on head shapes, their remarkability and otherwise; about troubling proclivities toward orange; one piece beginning, “Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions.”; about Frankenstein, Godzilla, Rumpelstiltskin, Lucille Ball, and The Tale of Genji (but not all in the same essay); about screen time, and what writers had children and who didn’t, and why writers’ children keep writing about closed office doors (and Galchen wonders why these doors are more troubling than the doors at Daddy’s work, downtown in a high rise building); about babies in art; and her complicated feelings about women’s writing and “women’s writing,” which she fascinatingly teases out.

New variety of depression: It’s true what they say, that a baby gives you a reason to live. But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.

Things that one was misleadingly told were a big part of having a baby: Diapers. Changing them. Bottles. Cleaning them. Wraps. Baths. Sleeplessness. Cheerios. All these things exist but rise to consciousness about as often as the apartment’s electricity does.

June 26, 2015

My Favourite Things and Ah-ha to Zig-Zag by Maira Kalman

In 15 years of blogging, I am not sure there’s a post I’m more proud of than the one I wrote last fall about my accidental discovery of the artist Maira Kalman (and of how that led to cake). Coming to Maira Kalman was a curious experience rich with signs and wonders, like the United Pickle label on the back of The Principals of Uncertainty, and the title of the book at all because I would have purchased any volume called such a thing. Not to mention that hers are picture books for grown-ups, which I so completely delight in, and so I was thrilled to receive for my birthday yesterday a copy of her book, My Favourite Things.

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“Isn’t that the only way to CURATE A LIFE? To live among things that make you GASP with delight?” Kalman writes, which is just one of the many points at which this book had me nodding and gesturing emphatically. And yes, GASPing with delight.

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My Favourite Things is as random as its title suggests, art and writing about various objects. Part 1 is “There Was a Simple and Grader Life,” which explores Kalman’s family history through items including a grey suit belonging to her father, a grater for making potato pancakes, and her aunt’s bathtub in which fish would swim “waiting to become Friday Night dinner.” Part 3 is called “Coda: or some other things the author collects and/or likes” (including “bathtubs, buttons and books”) and the middle section of the book was born from Kalman’s experience curating an exhibit of her favourite items from The Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

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My children were excited to realize that they recognized many parts of the second section of my new book, because I’d bought them a copy of Kalman’s children’s book Ah-hA to Zig-Zag last December.

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It was a book they had some trouble with at first because Kalman’s zaniness is a bit lost on the childhood mind which is so often looking for things to make sense and for books to have stories. But Kalman’s unorthodox A-Z (which, like My Favourite Things, is also a tour though objects from her exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt ) grew on them, and they can appreciate its strangeness now that it’s familiar (and they like the image of the cutest dog on earth, as well as the picture of the toilet in the middle of the alphabet—”Now might be a good time to go to the bathroom. No worries. We will wait for you. Not a problem.”—as a bathroom visit is essential to any museum experience [although it’s curious that she never makes it to the cafe.])

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(As a notorious imperfectionist, I am also partial to O.)

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Not only do Kalman’s books celebrate the marvellousness of things, the books themselves are marvellous things in their own right. They’re things that (literally) speak to you (Ah-hA! There you are. Are you ready to read the Alphabet?…), and unless I’m particularly singular (unlikely) you too will find that Kalman’s curated collections will speak to you in other ways too, connecting with your experience in an uncanny manner, making you suspect that Kalman’s been eavesdropping on your soul.

The only trouble with the overlap between Ah-Ha! and My Favourite Things is that my youngest daughter keeps getting frustrated by being unable to find the toilet in the latter, though that is just another example of how these beautiful puzzling books are so wholly engaging. Having a few of them lying around the house is not a bad to curate a life after all.

June 8, 2014

They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

they-left-us-everythingWhen Plum Johnson’s mother died, as eldest daughter, she was charged with the task of packing up the contents of the family home. This would be no easy task for anyone, but particularly not for Johnson whose parents’ lakefront house on Oakville Ontario was both enormous and stuffed with the materials of decades and decades of family life (including ancient receipts, her father’s impeccable financial records, antique cans of soup, books and more books, and a wasp’s nest). Johnson left her own home in Toronto and moved into her parents’ house, figuring the task before her would take six weeks or so, but she ended up staying for over a year, an experience she recounts in her memoir, They Left Us Everything.

In some ways, Johnson’s is the kind of story that many readers will relate to–a tale of years of demanding elder care, about the peculiar grief of losing one’s parents and the complicated and surprising emotions which accompany this, about coming to terms with who our parents were and the people we wished them to be. But in others, her family’s story is more, well, storied (so much so that her mother has an entire shelf in their home related to books published by or about members of their family). Her family’s interesting background remains peripheral in this memoir, but informs the fascinating lives of the characters who populate it. We learn about her mother’s privileged upbringing in the American South, her father’s war exploits, the early years of her parents’ marriage in Asia, and their eventual settlement in Canada (which was a compromise between their respective heritages). Not everyone has a huge house on the shores of Lake Ontario to come home to for years and years, and there is a hint of exotic to Johnson’s family’s everyday life that makes for a compelling read. Also compelling is the terrific bond between Johnson and her siblings.

Johnson does a specular job of weaving the personal with the universal here, of making her parents so present in a story about their loss, of untangling the difficult legacy of inheritance—all this stuff, but then it’s everything that’s left of her parents in the world. And so Johnson delves into it all and discovers that she never really knew her parents after all. Her approach is similar to two other books that I enjoyed so muchBaking as Biography by Diane Tye and Outside the Box by Maria Meindl, in which women’s lives are discovered through unlikely archives.

In the end, They Left Us Everything is a literary mishmash just as much as the cupboards in Johnson’s parents house were repositories for every kind of thing. It’s a tale of grief, but also a record of fantastic stories, memorable characters, of family life in the mid-20th century, a scrapbook of fascinating objects, a portrait of family ties, and what it means to be a daughter and a mother. It’s an artfully crafted memoir, and a really wonderful read.

December 12, 2013

This is my nephew.

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Because I have a nephew! At least I do as of 12:07 (mountain time) this morning. My sister and brother-in-law have done some excellent work here, I think. He’s adorable, and the world is a whole other place now for his arrival. Life will never be the same. Amazing…

He is getting his first Sheree Fitch book for Christmas. And now I am an Aunt. Which is an intimidating prospect, because my own children’s aunts have set the bar really, really high.

November 20, 2013

CD GIVEAWAY! The Sounding Joy by Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends

sounding-joy-bannerI fell in love with Elizabeth Mitchell’s music when Harriet was a baby, and suddenly the whole world was a richer, sunnier place. Her music is the soundtrack to our family life, and I love that with her folk songs she gives us roots, but also keeps us rocking out to covers by Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Van Morrison. I love how she brought us Remy Charlip. “Alphabet Dub” on her You Are My Sunshine album is hands-down the best version of the ABCs ever.

Her latest is an album of Christmas songs, The Sounding Joy. And you can listen to a preview here, the song “Children, Go Where I Send Thee  (Little Bitty Baby: A Cumulative Song)”.

More about the album for Smithsonian Folkways:

Grammy-nominated recording artist Elizabeth Mitchell releases The Sounding Joy, ann exploration of Christmas and solstice songs from the American folk tradition.  Drawn almost exclusively from the often overlooked but deeply influential songbook of revered composer and anthologist Ruth Crawford Seeger, these songs evoke an era before mass media and the commercialization of Christmas, when sacred song, dance, contemplation, and gathering were prized above all else during the holiday season. Mitchell’s fifth album for Smithsonian Folkways, The Sounding Joy features husband Daniel Littleton, daughter Storey, and special guests Peggy Seeger, Natalie Merchant, Amy Helm, Aoife O’Donovan, Gail Ann Dorsey, Larry Campbell, Dan Zanes, and John Sebastian, among many other family, friends, and neighbors. This gorgeously reverent 24-song collection attempts to save these traditional American holiday songs from an “unmarked grave,” as Merchant puts it in her essay included in the liner notes.

 

Although the songs presented are specific to the Christian tradition, Mitchell’s husband Daniel Littleton cites the inclusive nature of the project, describing the assembly of musicians as an “ecumenical summit” of sorts, with participants of many religious and non-religious backgrounds coming together happily to bring the songs to life. Mitchell sums up the spirit of the album best in her notes: “However you and your loved ones celebrate the last month of the year, I hope it is filled with the sounds of joy.”

And even better than news of a brand new Elizabeth Mitchell album? Why, that Smithsonian Folkways has provided me with a CD copy to give away to one of you. If you leave a comment on this post by midnight November 30, I’ll include your name in a random draw to win the CD.

**Congrats to Suss. Thanks to all who entered. Hope you’ll get your own copies. It’s a really lovely album. 

November 16, 2013

Children of Air India by Renee Sarojini Sakiklar

children-of-air-indiaOn June 23 1985, Air India Flight 182 was blown up by a bomb, exploding over the Atlantic Ocean in Irish airspace. 329 people were killed, 268 of them Canadians, making this the largest mass-murder in Canadian history. And 82 of the dead were children under the age of 13.

In Children of Air India: Un/Authorized Exhibits and Interjections, Renee Sarojini Saklikar injects life and story into an event whose devastation has been dulled by time and newspaper headlines. An event that should have become part of the national consciousness, but never did, Canadians–because of racism, xenophobia, and general ignorance–choosing to regard it as another country’s tragedy, the product of another’s country’s troubles.

The collection is a combination of found object piece, memoir and imaginative flight. Saklikar’s sources include official documents and reports from the Air India Inquiry, books on the subject, interviews, and her own experience as one whose life was touched by the tragedy–her aunt and uncle her among those killed on Flight 182, flying home to India from Canada, having changed their travel plans in order to get back to their son.

In the book, Saklikar takes on the persona, N, to elegize the events of June 23 1985, and the individuals who were lost–in particular those 82 children. These poems are harrowing to read, unimaginable facts from coroners’ reports of the trauma suffered by bodies of the dead, and also in the lives she imagines as lived by these people who in death were reduced to numbers:

We are mother-father-daughter-daughter
three of us India-born, one of us Canada-made,
each grain of each minute, cascading days
the 1960s rush into the 1970s rush into a new decade
1980—

no signs come to us
that we might one day end, no portents accumulate
to brush against our skin…

(from “Exhibit (1985): the unknown family”)

In addition to these biographies, Saklikar considers N’s own grief, her family’s response to the tragedy, and also the circumstances behind the RCMP’s famously bungled work on the case, both before and after the incident. Further, she evokes the idea and ideal of Canada, showing how each is tarnished by Air India Flight 182, and sets Air India alongside other shameful components of our national identity, including colonialism and inaction surrounding missing and murdered women.

This poetry collection is beautiful, devastating, difficult and important. Difficult in terms of subject matter, but yet the narrative was so compelling, N herself leading the reader through so many lives and stories, plot and intrigue. Throughout, I needed to take short pauses because it all was a little too much, but then I’d pick the book right up again, the poetry accessible and fascinating, rich with history and voices.

Read Marsha Lederman’s piece on the book in the Globe and Mail.

November 10, 2013

Someone is always crying somewhere. Usually here.

IMG_20131105_165802Everything has been a bit heightened around here lately, busy and outside of ordinary. Stuart was working at a conference at the beginning of last week, and so was away a lot. There has been a flurry of activity to have my book copy-edited by the end of this week (which is very exciting!). I was preparing for the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo on Saturday, and then we found out on Friday night that my poor dad was going to need emergency surgery. My mom drove Iris and I to Waterloo on Saturday morning and left without enough time, which meant that we arrived just as my event was beginning, GPS dropping us off a block away from where we should have been. I’d been breastfeeding in the car as we zipped down the highway, leaning over the carseat, presenting a curious sight to passing drivers, I am sure. The car stopped and I jumped out without even saying goodbye, dashing across an intersection and with no time to even worry about how my mom was going to contend with Iris, who did indeed scream for the entire 80 minutes I was presenting. Apparently, everybody was quite concerned, not knowing that Iris’s end-of-the-world scream is pretty standard for her. She has taken to letting it rip whenever anybody who isn’t me is holding her. After 7pm, this population includes her father, which is a little bit annoying, and we’re hoping it’s just a phase. I know it’s just a phase. But still. A bit rage-inducing.

Anyway, my Wild Writers event went really well, but between worrying about my dad and Bad Iris, I wasn’t really there. (Read Carrie Snyder’s blog, because she was!) We didn’t stay too long after lunch, and drove back to the city without incident. We were happy to learn that my dad was out of surgery and stable, and while his recovery will be long and difficult, I am glad he’s going to be okay. We’ll be going to see him next weekend, in the midst of (inevitably) last-minute preparations for our trip to England. Yes, Bad Iris on a transatlantic flight. Gulp. Luckily, there will be Grandparents at our destination to receive her. And probably hand her back when she starts screaming…

So yes, there has pretty much always been someone around here having a tantrum lately. I am pleased that this someone has not always been me. While Iris sleeps on me, or doesn’t sleep on me, rather, I have been reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a big fat American-sized book which I’m 500 pages into and not tired of yet. Not a perfect book–I agree with all of Zsuzsi Gartner’s criticisms in her review. And yet, it’s working for me. I enjoyed Jared Bland’s examination of its language in yesterday’s paper.

Also in yesterday’s paper: a story about Harriet’s play school and its role as part of Toronto’s hippie past and the legacy of Rochdale College. And do read “The Wild Thing With People Feet Was My Favourite,” which is an amazing story of the power of picture books and how they shape and reflect our lives. Plus, a Behind the Poem feature from Melanie Dennis Unrau’s Happiness Theads, in which the poet unpacks the strange abbreviations of online mothering forums. And an interview (with recipes for cookies and scones!) by the creators of Alice Eats: A Wonderland Cookbook.

September 24, 2013

The Hang of It

My new office.

My new office.

Now that we’re nearly three weeks into our brand new life, I’m going to take the risk of saying out loud that we might be getting the hang of it. After a very bumpy first week, Harriet is very happy to be in Junior Kindergarten, and has already acquired some brand new skills, such as being able to sit down and focus on a project for more than two minutes, and also the ability to draw something that actually resembles a thing. She is also enjoying being back at her play school in the afternoons. Stuart is back to work, and quite happily now that we’ve learned he’s got a promotion and begins a new position next month. He’s also taking a college course he’s finding very inspiring, which means I am home alone on Wednesday nights.

The first Wednesday night was surprisingly good–I had two crabby kids and a heat wave, so we all jumped in the bath and had a pool party in the tub. Somehow, I managed to drown no one, we had dinner, *and* I mopped the floor, so I got to feel like Mommy Awesome. There was to be no repeat the following Wednesday, however, as the baby proceeded to cry unceasingly and the house looked like it had been hit by a hurricane. We’ll see how I do tomorrow.

Regarding Iris, who is 3.5 months old: we thought we’d been doing so well tolerating her poor sleeping habits, and then she went and showed us that we’d not seen nothing yet as poor sleeping goes, and so now I’m kind of the walking dead. This time, however, we know it’s a problem to be endured instead of something that we can fix, and so we just tolerate the tireds without feeling badly about the whole thing, and that makes a huge difference. She has a cold and has just got her second tooth in, which isn’t helping matters, plus she is a *baby* and we know what they’re like.

What they’re like though is pretty easy compared to 4 year-olds, which I didn’t appreciate at all the first time. I also think that when I was home with Baby Harriet, I was terrifically bored, but now I’ve got commitments and deadlines, and things to get done with Baby lying on my chest. There is no time for boredom, and so Iris rolls around on the floor while I do my work, and I really am accomplishing so much, though I am having to also train myself to type with one hand while the baby screams in my other arm. In the mornings, she falls asleep soon after I drop off Harriet at school, and so I can’t go home because our apartment is up a flight of stairs and I’ve got her in the stroller, so I go to RedFish BlueFish instead and work for the 30 minutes she manages to stay asleep for. (Iris has about six naps a day, 20-40 minutes. This would bother me, except I had another baby like that once before, and everything worked out fine.)

And the very best thing we’re up to these days is that we started reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which Harriet and I are both encountering for the very first time. And we love it. I’m reading it aloud and once in a while get a sense of where possible criticism comes from, but these criticisms would mainly be about there being too many adverbs, or that characters “hiss” sentences which are not sufficiently sibilant, which are the kind of criticisms you really have to go looking for and be an asshole to make.

May 6, 2013

Hanami Picnic Beneath Sakura

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