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Pickle Me This

August 4, 2017

Summer Break

Back in a few weeks!

August 1, 2017

Camping With Louise Penny

I have developed a hammock habit over the last few years, and most lazy summer afternoons you’ll find me in my urban backyard enjoying a warm breeze and basking in the shade of our enormous silver maple. Reading, obviously. And the best thing about a hammock habit is that it can be altogether portable if you’ve got the right hammock, which I do, complete with a foldable frame and a carrying bag. It is the heaviest most awkward portable object imaginable, but it’s mine, and it’s the most essential item in our mountain of equipment when we’re packing the car to go camping.

We’re not natural campers, my family. I’m a bad Canadian and my husband is an immigrant, and so camping (along with ice skating) is an activity we’ve had to work hard to fall in love with—mostly for the sake of the children. But because camping doesn’t involve falling all over perilous slippery surfaces while wearing blades on our shoes, we’ve actually had some luck with this. This summer will be our fourth year pitching a tent out in the wilderness—or rather, more realistically, while my husband is busy pitching the tent, I’ll be setting up my hammock.

The hammock itself is not the only ingredient necessary for a successful camping weekend, however. We need bug spray, and sleeping pads, fire-starters and marshmallows, and we need books. And not just any books. For me, I’ve learned that a weekend camping in the woods is not completely unless I’ve got a big fat Louise Penny novel to be absorbed in. The hammock would be wasted without it.

Miles from the cozy civilization invoked by the fictional Three Pines, with its bistro, B&B, boulangerie and bookshop, I spend our camping afternoons in my hammock wholly wrapt by Penny’s novels, compelled by her character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his call to duty. There will be some sort of crime, either immediately or eventually a murder, and any gruesomeness related to this matter will be abated by the scenes Penny sets in Three Pines, a place as familiar to me as my own neighbourhood is. I pick up these books in anticipation of returning to Three Pines, and to its people, who are complicated, irreverent, brilliant, warm and funny. And there, in the middle of the woods in Ontario, insects buzzing about and sunshine peeking in through the canopy of tall skinny pine trees, there I’ll be.

You can almost smell the croissants warm from the oven, which is saying something, when a fictional redolence can overpower the actual smell of outhouse.

(We had an amazing, albeit bug-infested, camping trip this weekend. Lucky me, I had an ARC of Louise Penny’s new novel Glass Houses in hand. You can see more photos on my Instagram.)

July 13, 2017

Nova Scotia Dreams

We went to Nova Scotia for the same reason we go anywhere, which is to say that it was bookstore-related. And also that I have a very indulgent family, it is true, who are willing to come along on these bookshop adventures, even if they’re not quite as crazy about bookshops as I am (and to be half as crazy about bookshops as I am is a lot of crazy to ask of anybody).

But the thing about bookshops is that are frequently located in interesting places, which makes bookshop adventures about more than just the bookshop. They are also about snacks, and lunch, dinner, croissants, good coffee, playgrounds, picnics, toy stores, and more snacks. In this case, they were also about the ocean, playing on gorgeous beaches, seeing big ships in Halifax Harbour, getting so close to PEI that the road turned red, seeing a bear and a deer by the side of the road on the very same day, collecting seaglass, getting sunburned, and eating lobster and all the seafood chowder, and getting a write-up in the Tatamagouche Light.

We went to Nova Scotia because Sheree Fitch had opened a bookshop there, Mabel Murple’s Bookshoppe and Dreamery, in River John, and also because the rest of my family is made up of new Canadians (i.e. nobody has been a Canadian for more than a handful of years) and we wanted to explore a new part of the country. And so as the rest of the country was celebrating 150 years of settler-colonialism, we were up in the sky above it all, which seemed a lot better than the alternative. We also got to see the giant duck from the air.

Mabel Murple’s was built in an old granary, and it was full of colour and books and magic. The books were terrific, the vibe incredible, and the way the sun poured in through those windows. The carpentry was the handiwork of Fitch’s amazing husband, Gilles Plante, and I suspect it was Sheree who supplied the dreams and whimsy…and the colour. The place was enchanting, and while my children have seen a lot of bookshops in their time, even they were impressed. Outside the shop in the sand, someone had scattered tiny purple sparkles, and Harriet and Iris were busy trying to capture some. Opening Day was also the Wordplay festival, so we sat down on our picnic blanket and took in music and readings, plus there were sheep, and a goat, horses and a donkey, a shed that had been painted purple and transformed into Mabel Murple’s house and we were all quite delighted as we peered inside.

And then we got to meet Sheree, who we met for the first time when Iris was an infant and Harriet was four (remember that?). Sheree, who has the most remarkable ability to make a person feel like the most special person in the world. And there were hundreds of there who came to see her, and I think we all came away feeling exactly that way. 

And then we drove up the road from Mabel Murple’s to Cape John, because we hadn’t properly seen the sea yet. Later we’d discover that it’s one of the best beaches in Nova Scotia for finding sea glass. We found some lovely pieces, but mostly just revelled in the goodness of putting our feet in the ocean, feeling the sand and stones beneath them. The sparkles on the wave, those clouds, and that sky. It was one of those holiday moments where we’re all thinking, “This is everything everything everything.”

We were fortunate to get the use of friends’ beautiful home in the North End of Halifax for our home base during our visit, and we explored the city with such pleasure. Fantastic meals, fun by the harbour, the Africville Museum, the Discovery Centre, the Farmers’ Market, the Central Library, Woozles and The Bookmark, and so much more. 

We spent a wonderful afternoon at Crystal Crescent Beach, with white sand and blue water that could almost trick you into believing that you were in the tropics—except the water was cold

We loved the Public Gardens, which reminded us all vividly of the book Mary Poppins in the Park, which we read not so long ago, because there was a park keeper and bylaws and everything. It was pretty magic and we got ice cream, and were given a tour by Rohan Maitzen, who I’ve been a fan of online for awhile now and it was very nice to meet properly in real life. 

Tragedy struck on our final morning in Halifax—we ran out of cereal (oh no!) and therefore had to have our breakfast at Two If By Sea in Dartmouth, whose croissants we’d tried early in the week and they were so extraordinary that we had to make a return trip. Sour cherry cheese, guys. It was seriously the most delicious thing ever. 

Someone threw up on the way to Peggy’s Cove, as you do. 

And then we were in Lunenberg! UNESCO World Heritage Site, BABIES! 

There was lobster dinner to die for, and then we spent the next morning with Hirtles Beach to ourselves (the puke bucket subs in nicely for a sand pail, FYI) which was so magnificent (even with grey skies and shrouded in fog) that we felt like we were in a story. 

And speaking of stories, we got to visit Lexicon Books, where I’d be doing a reading that evening. I’d seen photos of the store on social media, but they did not even come close to how great the space was in real life, and how good the books were. 

So there was more, squids in the street, and our excellent B&B, and incredible things to discover ’round every corner in Lunenburg.

The reading that night was terrific, and I was pleased to be there with Johanna Skibsrud and Rebecca Silver Slayter—and I had a good time reading Rebecca’s novel In the Land of the Birdfishes for the rest of the weekend. 

We stopped in Mahone Bay on our way to the airport, to get sandwiches and oatcakes for the plane, and for one last bowl of chowder, not to mention a quick look for sea glass in search of some elusive lavender glass. Which was not meant to be. Next trip, I guess? I hope so.

Quick! Somebody open up another bookshop….

January 3, 2017

Holiday Stop

It occurred to me partway through December that this had been the first holiday season in nine years years during which I hadn’t had a baby, or a two-year-old, or been pregnant, and/or very very sick. And so that was how it all got done. How we made a list at the beginning of the month packed with all the Christmassy things we wanted to get up to—museums, galleries, shopping malls, and Christmas markets—and managed to check off every single item, as well as get the presents bought and wrapped, and all the Christmas cards posted in plenty of time. This December, I was a wonder woman, and we did so very much in the weeks leading up to the big day that I was unsure how exactly we were going to spend our Christmas holiday, but then fate decided to step in and solve that problem itself. Harriet threw up at 4am on Christmas morning, thereby kicking off a string of days in which one person or another or everyone was under the weather, and so we didn’t leave the house for days. I’m not even complaining. First, because I managed to escape the sick, and second because no one was ever that sick. (The standard for “that sick” was set two years ago when I gave us all food poisoning with a dodgy risotto. Still traumatized. Everything that’s less sick just arrives as something of a relief.) And so the story of our Christmas break is mainly one about the couch, and the children watching hours of the latest incarnation of How to Train Your Dragon on Netflix while I lounged about in track pants and read one fat biography after another. It’s about days blending together and too much broken sleep, which meant that all this downtime didn’t quite add up to “relaxing.” But there was a certain charm to it—it felt awfully refreshing to have no place to go. Sometimes the universe knows what you need more than you do. Though of course I would say that being the one member of our family who didn’t spend any time this holiday on intimate terms with the puke bucket.

December 23, 2016

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Yesterday I was cutting out sugar cookies with Iris and the above image appeared on the table before more, so absolutely perfect. So much light. Very often, the world is more wondrous than we give it credit for. And in order to take note of just how wondrous, I’m going offline for a week starting tonight. I look forward to reading real books, talking with actual people, and lighting up the darkness with illuminations metaphorical and otherwise. Wishing you a restful, fulfilling holiday season, and thank you for reading.

PS But before you go? Check out my thoughts on CanLit in 2016/2017 in this cool little article. 

August 31, 2016

Extraordinary Day

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My favourite thing about being a parent is the way you get the make the world magic. The way you can wave an imaginary wand an transform an ordinary day into a extraordinary one. The way that my children had no idea what was up when we told them to get their shoes on at 8:30 this morning, and when they kept asking where we were going, we said they’d find out when they got there. They’d been expecting their daddy to leave for work as usual, but there we all were marching to the subway, south to Union. And then a walk along Front Street, and over the train tracks to the aquarium, because Harriet’s loves the aquarium, and had expressed a wish to go there again. There you go Harriet: wish granted. Amazing.

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We had a terrific time at the aquarium, and the best part was when we ran into my best friend Jennie. After a few hours we were done though, and the place was completely bonkers, and so we left and meandered north to the place that had perhaps inspired this whole aquarium plan—the close-in-proximity, brand new Penguin Bookshop.

A bookstore that fits in your pocket, it is, or your closet, at least. Formerly a shoe repair kiosk. It features a lively selection of Penguin-branded goods and books they publish, Canadian and classic. I got the new Dave Eggers novel and The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter, and we bought a copy of Ooko because we’d had it from the library and loved it. It was very nice to finally stop by.

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We had lunch at the Old Spaghetti Factory, which was completely fun, and totally not horrible or boring. And there was so much bread. The bad thing about being snobs who live downtown is that we don’t get free bread with our meals very often, and certainly not for lunch (and if we do, it’s spelt bread and nobody wants to eat it). The children thought the place was great and we thought it was surprisingly good, the perfect place to stop on this day of being tourists in our own city for a while.

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“And what are you doing with the rest of your day?” our waiter asked us as we paid our bill. “We’re going to visit Toronto’s First Post Office,” I told him. I told him, “You’ve probably been there a hundred times, right?” He gave me a look. When he finally bid us adieu, he said, “Have fun at the…post office.”

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But not just any post office! It’s an actual working post office (and woo hoo! Canada Post and its employees have finally come to an agreement so we’re not going to be having a postal strike) AND a museum. From the restaurant, we walked through the beautiful St. Lawrence neighbourhood to get there, and finally arrived. Full disclosure, the children were being to lose their shit by this point.

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At Toronto’s First Post office you get to try writing with quills, and can also purchase stationary to write letters in their reading room. The place was marvellously busy, with tourists and also people coming in on ordinary errands. After finding out that writing with quills was really hard, Harriet and Iris sat down to write with ordinary pens, and they both ended up crying because a) over the summer Harriet had lost any writing skills she’d ever possessed and b) Iris had never possessed any anyway. And all I wanted to was write a letter to my friend, but the children were bananas and also doing dangerous deeds with ink, which ended up smeared all over Iris’s body, and then she blotted it with the sand provided for such things, and it all had gone a little bit awry. We pulled it together though, got letters written and even posted. And then it was time to admit that the day was coming to an end, so we headed for the subway, and nobody cried again, I think, so it all was a success.

August 14, 2016

Last week’s view

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But it’s still good to be home.

August 5, 2016

Summer Break

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One of my favourite bits of blogging advice is that bloggers should take breaks—it’s good for the blogging soul (sole!) and also underlines to the reader that the person behind this blog is a human. And now with this post, I put my advice into practice. We’re heading offline and into the wilds tomorrow, and I can’t wait. Particularly since I’m bringing this beautiful stack of novels with me. We’ll be back to the city in a week, but my blogging break might last a week longer…but no promises on this one. If all goes well I will presumably be too bursting with good things to tell you.

July 3, 2016

Summer Starts

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

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

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

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

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March 17, 2016

Barbados Book Report

IMG_20160301_145915I promise that I am nearly finished writing blog posts about Barbados, but I haven’t talked about the books yet. We brought so many books to Barbados, twelve or so, books for me and books for Stuart, and it made our suitcase quite heavy and wondered if it was really wise to travel with more books than sunscreen, but my intuition than it was indeed turned out to be correct. Because there was so much time to read, and even enough time that there was enough time to read…and also do other things besides reading. (I am also not sorry that we brought twelve physical books with us, a few of them hardcovers, because on the journey home I found a forgotten Kindle in the pocket of the seat in front of me, belonging to someone called Pat who’d lost more than 100 books all that once. If I’d forgotten a book in an airplane [which, by the way, would never ever ever happen] I’d still have eleven more available for my reading pleasure. There is nothing I’d rather carry more than books. And I would rather carry books than nothing any time.)

IMG_20160227_114010My first book was Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels series. As I’ve said, it’s a series I’m not mad for, but am intrigued by, and I’ve enjoyed each subsequent book more than the previous (which makes sense—I’m perpetually bored by stories of childhood and adolescence). And this was the one I’ve been most looking forward to, for the characters are mothers now and Lena is a writer, and these storylines compel me. And they did. I read most of this on the 5 hour flight, dipping in and out of Carolyn Smart’s collection of Bonnie and Clyde poems, Careen, for diversion. I enjoyed it so much, and was most struck by the tension between the two friends when Lena becomes pregnant and is determined to do pregnancy and motherhood properly, to prove her friend’s struggles with it had been personal failings rather than circumstance. And there are even a few days where it seems possible, until the whole thing goes to pieces, and she loses herself as so many women do (not knowing too that all this is such a temporary situation—she imagines motherhood as a fixed state). This was the first Ferrante books I seemingly devoured in that way one is meant to. I really really liked it.

IMG_20160228_134156Next up was My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout, which Ann Patchett and others had proclaimed as Strout’s best book yet. I’d come belatedly to Olive Kitteridge, but really liked it, and had been looking forward to this one, but it kind of disappointed me. I mean not entirely, because it was interesting and also short, a consideration which meant my investment was not overwhelming. But this was also problematic because I bought the book in hardback, paid $30+ for it and felt I’d paid a lot of money for something slight and unfinished. Which was inherent to the project, I supposed, but I was never able to quite figure out how, or what the point was, or why this wasn’t a novel proper. Though it being short, I think I will go back and explore it again, see what I missed. It did actually seem an uncanny read after reading Ferrante, echoes of one with the other. The very premise of Lucy Barton reminded me of the part in The Story of a New Name in which Lena’s mother comes to Pisa to care for her when she is ill, an anomaly in the story of their relationship, as it was for Lucy and her mother, and so too the circumstance of each woman’s positioning against her past and her family, and the insurmountable nature of class.

IMG_20160229_105956After that, I read The Sunken Cathedral, by Kate Walbert, whose A Short History of Women I’d enjoyed so much a few years ago, and it came recommended by Nancy Jo at Book City. It also seemed like a strange choice following My Name is Lucy Barton, also set in New York City, delving into ideas of motherhood, art, and friendship. Although I felt I wasn’t quite in the right mindset for it. It’s even more fragmented than Lucy Barton but less annoying so—the pieces are so disparate that it makes the project seem like more instead of less. All the same though, I couldn’t make the pieces (each of them compelling in their own rights) fit together to mean something greater than the parts. Was I reading it wrong, I wondered? Why couldn’t I focus enough to have the whole thing make sense? And then I found this New York Times book review that kind of confirmed by feelings and suggesting the problem wasn’t entirely me, and I liked the book better after that, accepting it on its own terms.

IMG_20160301_103825And then I read Diary of a Mad Housewife, which I was absolutely mad for. I’d ordered it after reading Laura Miller’s article on the resurgence of the housewife novel, which interested me because I think Mitzi Bytes fits into the genre. And it was fantastic. How can this book be out of print? It’s funny, sharp, and a marvellous exercise in narrative voice. I’ve never seen the award-winning film, but now I’d like to. As the introduction indicated in my edition, this 1967 anticipated books like Bridget Jones Diary and Candice Bushnall’s Sex and the City columns, and fits well into the genre of Betty Draper books I kind of love, which includes Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellers, The Torontonians by Phyllis Brett Young, and the obligatory Betty Friedan. I appreciate that it’s a book about marriage and motherhood that does necessarily think marriage or motherhood is the singular problem, but that the problems go deeper than that. Also seemed an extension of The Sunken Cathedral in its considerations of New York and motherhood. These novels were continuing to speak to one another.

IMG_20160302_110316Following that, I read The Hundred Year House, by Rebecca Mekkai, which is our book club selection for this month and as I’d read online that it was a bit of a beach read, it seemed fitting to bring with us. It was a strange book that I didn’t entirely understand until I was further into it, and also not until I’d read about her first novel, The Borrower, which was rich with references to classic children’s books including The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, and the suddenly it all made sense, that this book is similarly a puzzle mystery but for grown-ups. The story moves backwards over the twentieth century to reveal the secrets behind a house, the eccentric family that owned it, and the visitors at an artists’ colony housed there for several decades. On the whole, it was a bit forgettable, but I enjoyed it. Curious echoes between it and Mad Housewife as well—both have characters who are hit in the face by mean men called George.

IMG_20160303_103218I had to take the dust jacket off for the next book, because my friend loaned it to me and then I took it to the beach, which puts books in perilous situations. The book is The Faithful Place, by Tana French, whose books I adore. My third Tana French, and perhaps my favourite. (I am reading them in order; each book is narrated by a minor character from the previous one. And I was so thrilled to discover a new one is forthcoming in August!) I don’t recall connections between this one and others I was reading, but I was so entirely absorbed in the novel that I wasn’t thinking about anything else. It’s about a Dublin detective, Frank Mackey, who returns to his estranged family when a suitcase is discovered in an abandoned house on their street. The suitcase belongs to his first love, a girl who jilted him on the night they were meant to run away together. And now maybe it turns out that he wasn’t jilted, and that someone close to both of them actually killed her.

IMG_20160304_103834The Pumpkin Eater, by Penelope Mortimer, was after that, the fourth book I’ve read by Mortimer, although it reminded me much more of Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns, in being a rather devastated telling of the realities behind fancy bohemian lives. These poor women. (Both novels are autobiographical as well.) It’s about a wife who has been as partial to philandering as she is to bearing children, but when her umpteenth husband starts cheating on her, it’s all quite different. It’s a spare novel, much of it dialogue and we don’t even know the main character’s name. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed later novels by Mortimer—I liked My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof and Home, novels written after this one and Daddy’s Gone a Hunting. But I also think it’s far from a beach read and one perhaps not best appreciated under the influence of a daiquiri. And so I’m going to be reading it again.

IMG_20160305_100107And finally, my bonus book (for it was from Stuart’s stack). The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith i.e. J.K. Rowling, her foray into detective fiction, the first in a trilogy. And I loved it. For me, I’ve always connected J.K. Rowling (whose work I’ve not read before, apart from a read aloud of the first Harry Potter a couple of years ago) with Kate Atkinson, both of their career successes undertaking similar trajectories, and so it seemed fitting that this book reminded me so much of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels (although Galbraith’s is much lighter in tone, less brutal and violent). Anyway, The Cuckoo’s Calling was great, and I look forward to following its characters through the other books in the series.

Since returning, I’ve been immersed in great Spring 2016 books, and I have a few really good ones I look forward to telling you about.

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