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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.

March 9, 2016

Barbados in Words, Part II


I think photos say it better though. Mostly because we really didn’t do much—you’ll notice that I took very few photos that weren’t from the vantage point of a beach lounger. By the end, we were getting bored (and sick of eating), which was kind of the point. To be bored—what a luxury. Also, to read an entire book every single day. But really, speaking of luxury, best of all was the time together, just the two of us. We haven’t spent a week without our children ever since they were born, and we’ve never been to an all-inclusive resort, or to the Caribbean. The closest we’ve ever come to a beach vacation was our time in Northern Thailand building a house for Habitat for Humanity, which had no beach and involved mixing cement by hand and brick-laying (which, incidentally, I’m not very good at, in case you were wondering). So this trip to Barbados was precedent setting. And probably mostly once in a lifetime. But how cool that that happened last week.


Our tenth anniversary was last June, and we might have gone away then except that Iris was too small and we wanted to go to England before she turned two (and therefore required a seat purchase). So it was put off until this year, which was fine because how nice to be still celebrating our anniversary nine months later. And none of it could happened without my wonderful mom who came and took excellent care of our daughters so that we didn’t worry about them ever, ever. (“Was it difficult to adjust to being away without then?””Well…no.”) And so we two had a week in paradise where the weather was always always perfect, where nobody had to cook or make school lunches, and we could sit with just us at the table—except for the time our breakfast was interrupted by a monkey.


In Barbados, there are trees on the beach, which didn’t prevent me from breaking out in a terribly rash from my sun allergy, but I didn’t care because I was sitting under a tree on the beach. Where the water was so magically blue, and I was either reading or swimming, and the sea was so warm and we floated in the saltwater with incredible ease—nothing has ever been more relaxing. Sometimes, to break up the day, we sat upright, but not very often. We drank rum punch, pina coladas, and daiquiris before lunchtime. I ate friend plantains for breakfast every day until I was tired of them. Our beach was a five minute walk from the town of Speightstown, which gave us a glimpse of a Barbados a little more real than our resort afforded, and also the most amazing bakery and sea views at the Fisherman’s Pub. And there were so many hours in the day, it seemed unfathomable. To read an entire book, and still have a few hours free? What an amazing indulgence. Every day the sun went down around 6pm and we made a point of marking the occasion…with another drink.


March 8, 2016

In Time of Need, by Shakirah Bourne

(IMG_20160305_154417Or, the alternate blog post title: “Barbados in Words Part I” )

In the future whenever I think about the challenges of fostering a thriving literary culture in a country like Canada (pop. 35 million—as opposed to the US’s 318 million) I’m going to think about the population of Barbados, which is 285,000. Literacy rates are sky-high in Barbados, but there aren’t many bookshops outside the capital city of Bridgetown, which made our vacation last week particularly unique in our experience—this trip was just five minutes away from being the only one we’ve ever taken that did not involve bookshop pilgrimages, and from which we’d come home with fewer books than we’d left with.

Except…that after finally making our way through airport security, five minutes past when our boarding time had started, a bookshop appeared before us at the Grantley Adams International Airport, like a vision. A terrible husband would have suggested that instead we get on the plane, but my husband knew better, and so into the shop we went, me in pursuit of a single thing: a literary book by a Barbadian writer who was a woman. And there is was, In Time of Need, by Shakirah Bourne, a self-published title I knew nothing about, and after all, time was a-wasting, so bought it and rushed for the plane. And I happily read In Time of Need all the way home.

It’s a collection of stories, many of which have already appeared in Caribbean literary journals (including Arts Etc Barbados, which is edited by Bajan-Canadian Robert Edison Sandiford), and which was awarded the Barbados Governor General’s Award for Literary Excellence last year. The opening story, “Getting Marry,” is from the perspective of a young boy confused by his parents’ decision to become married (“because I could have swear that them was married every since”) who decides that getting married is all about kissing and cake, and decides to get in on the action himself  with a young friend, only to witness a very adult moment from his hiding spot under the cake-lady’s table. The story is fixed in the boy’s point of view and  rich with the slang and colloquialism of his language, but then the voice we encounter in the next story is entirely different (from the pov of a young woman who’s just been sold into sex trade, though she doesn’t realize it), and still the next, “The Last Crustacean,” which is narrated by a crab—all of which is to say that this is a fast-paced eclectic collection, a veritable grab-bag of good stories.

I loved “Sheep Don’t Stand Still,” with its fabulous twist, about a woman who thought she was living How Stella Got Her Groove Back with a Bajan lover she’d met on the beach, but who finds out more than she bargained for when he dies suddenly and she goes back to Barbados for the funeral. “If Dogs Could Talk” is a terrific story, one-sided dialogue by a woman being interrogated by police after her cousin is accused of murder. “Four Angry Men” is about politics and takes place over an afternoon at a rum shop. These are stories about domestic violence, child abuse, and family ties. “I Didn’t Know” has the most wonderful opening paragraph: “I first met Betty when her son stole my car. As I watched her punch him in the face and force my car keys from his pocket, all the while begging God for forgiveness, I decided we should be friends.” Another stellar selection was “The Five Day Death of Mr. Mayers,” a story of happenstance and misunderstanding, one thing leading to another with hilarious results. And I loved “A Tear for Miss Cinty,” about a young girl who doesn’t appreciate her mother’s devotion to an elderly neighbour until her own mother is old herself, and left so much alone.

This was all certainly a side of Barbados I was not privy to from the vantage point of my all-inclusive deck chair, but the colours, the sun, the flowers, the food, the slang and rhythms had become familiar to me and immersion in Bourne’s literary worlds was the perfect way to make my vacation last a little bit longer. So nice to bring a little piece of that place home.

March 6, 2016

Barbados in Pictures



February 27, 2016

Gone fishing! See you next week.


August 23, 2015



We went camping this weekend, and will need a few days to recover (and to do loads and loads of laundry). It was a beautiful, if exhausting weekend, and in addition to the company of my own family and that of my dear cousin’s people, I had the pleasure of Louise Penny’s and I’m now midway through her new one, The Nature of the Beast. It’s wonderful! (And must get this one read and then reread Joan Bodger’s How the Heather Looks before my book club meets on Wednesday.) Anyway, the Louise Penny was some consolation for the fact that I am now allergic to both lake water AND sunshine, and therefore had to spend our beach time hiding under an umbrella that kept blowing away. I was only 40% completely grumpy and annoyed about these circumstances, though some might estimate the percentage as a wee bit higher…


August 19, 2015

Summer Vacation Reads: The Syllabus

While it is true that the books one reads on her vacation can in fact make or break that vacation, it is essential that the reader not worry too much about all that. That she not fuss  about reading books that are geographically fitting, or thematically on point; there needn’t necessarily be a syllabus for one’s vacation reading, is what I mean. And not because a syllabus is not important, but because a syllabus has a strange way of asserting itself. It’s a kind of magic, I think, how when a few random books are selected to be read one after another, they end up speaking to each other in uncanny ways, and echoing the world around their reader.


While I take full credit for reading seven books during my recent one-week summer vacation (with children, no less) full disclosure requires me to inform you that I spent 1.5 hours waiting by myself for our delayed rental car with Nora Ephron’s Heartburn in my bag the day we left, so I got a jump start on the reading. I finished that book before we arrived, but this is kind of cheating because I started it before we even got on the road. In fact, I was reading it on the subway on my way to pick up the car, strap-hanging with one hand, the book in the other, when Rachel’s analysis group gets held up by a robber, and I almost fell over with the pacing of that scene, the absurdity, surprise. The book’s mingling of comedy and tragedy is so wonderful, and the only way a writer could ever get a book like this to work so well, I decided, would be for her to be Nora Ephron. From a technical standpoint, so much is wrong with Heartburn, but it’s perfect. I also tried the Potatoes Anna recipe and it was so ridiculously delicious, and not just because it was butter-laden. I really loved this novel, which introduced what my vacation-reads thesis was ultimately to be: books about marriage, but from often-unexamined points of view. Ephron’s roman a clef about the end of a marriage taking her reader on the roller coaster ride of emotions, the will-she-stay, will-she-go, will-she-plummet-or-soar questions as Rachel navigates her heartbreak. I loved it.


And then Still Life, by Louise Penny, her first Inspector Gamache novel. Which is one of the two mysteries I read that week, neither actually according to the syllabus, but what kind of fun is consistency? Whereas Still Life is so fun, wonderfully good. (I was reading it partly in preparation for the new Gamache book that comes out next week.) Though if I had to make this novel pertain to the syllabus somehow, it would be that Louise Penny novels are books that both parties in my marriage are crazy about. Having Stuart to talk about them with is one of my favourite parts of the reading.


And then Barbara Pym, and I do love to reread her in the summer. I can never remember her titles distinctly until I reread them and it all comes back. Some Tame Gazelle is the one with a Harriet, who lives in a country parish with her sister Belinda. It is also the one with a caterpillar in the cauliflower cheese. Harriet is mad for curates and Belinda harbours an impossible old love for the Archdeacon, who is married. These longings not quite the stuff of Jane Austen (with whom Pym is so often compared) in that the novel only ends with just one wedding and not six, and neither Harriet nor Belinda are the bridal party. And yet these unrequited affections are not meaningless or unimportant: ”Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love.” Marriage need not be the end of the story for a life to be full and complete.


Next was The Giant’s House, by Elizabeth McCracken, whose Thunderstruck was one of my favourite books of last year. I didn’t like it as much as the short stories—the sadness brought me down and I found that the narrator didn’t give us enough of herself, when she was the most fascinating character in the book. But McCracken is wonderful, and I’ll read everything she writes. Her narrator a rather Pymmish character, a librarian who meets a young boy with giantism. Peggy is drawn to James and desperate to be part of his orbit, never mind the different in their ages or height. It’s a story with a compelling sense of place and time, and richly drawn secondary characters. Two points about the marriage: that Peggy describes herself as the product of two parents who were in love with each other, and that is a blow no child can recover from. And McCracken too describes a Pymmish arrangement, a love that was not conventional or a marriage as we’d understand it, but meaningful and profound all the same.


And then I read Laurie Colwin. Oh my god, Laurie Colwin. I have not reread her books in so long, and I think I was a bit too young when I read them the first time. She is so excellent and funny, and so perfectly strangely skewed. Her book, Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, is about a young woman who must renegotiate the terms of her life after the sudden death of her husband in a sailing accident. A husband with whom, she admits, she probably would have divorced—he was young and reckless, and she came along for the ride. So yes, she is devastated, but the ride is over, and what now? The narrative zeroing in on all the parts lesser writers might skip, the seemingly mundane. Colin has unconventional views about marriage and fidelity, and oh yes, she believes in love, but life is as complicated as her characters’ psyches. I loved this book and devoured it, and reread Goodbye Without Leaving last week and then ordered Passion and Affect and The Lone Pilgrim right after, which are the two remaining Laurie Colwin novels I haven’t read yet. Oh, you have to read her. She is so so good.


The Home, by Penelope Mortimer, was my biggest surprise. She is the most undated 1970s’ novelist ever, and I remember thinking that when I read My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof, but this one could have been written tomorrow. (This is the novel I have been wanting to read for years because Carol Shields and Blanche Howard wrote about it in their collected letters.) It was so funny, contemporary, surprising, and strong. About recently-divorced Eleanor who embarks upon her new life as a divorcee after 25 years of marriage, at first with wide eyes and ideas about a home where her grown children would return, her youngest son could grow up secure, where she would have parties, entertain lovers, and be free, for the first time in her life. But reality doesn’t quite measure up (and oh, there is a heartbreaking scene where she has prepared herself and her home for the arrival of a lover, with tragic results). Eleanor’s children are so distinct, loveable, terrible and annoying—I was most amused by the family’s reaction to the eldest, Marcus, a homosexual who lives in France. This was a Margaret Drabble-ish read, but also particular and so excellent. This is a book that absolutely has to be brought back into print.


And then I read Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, which I loved, but there is no way I’m going to see the movie because it might terrify me. The book was definitely not on the syllabus, but it was so good though that I couldn’t put it down and finished before the sun went down. Which mean that I was left bookless: usually a terrifying situation. But kind of a liberating one, after seven days of mad marathon reading.


I am thoroughly incapable of reading nothing though. That night I made do with two 1980s’ Archie Double Digests, and they were fantastic.

August 9, 2015

I wish there was more


We didn’t need clocks on our vacation, or calendars. The hours of the day were accounted for by the sunshine as it moved across the grass, and we had to move the hammock to keep up and remain in the shade. The days themselves were marked by the the spread of a rash down my arms, which became quite extensive because the weather was great and we were swimming every day and I am actually allergic to lake water. It’s hard out there for a sex-goddess. Anyway, the week progressed as quickly as the rash did. I read seven books, this success jump-started by our rental car pick-up being delayed and so I got to sit for 1.5 hours reading Nora Ephron’s Heartburn before we even hit the road. It was wonderful, and contains the delicious recipe for Potatoes Anna which I have since made twice. I will be writing more about my vacation reads soon.


Our week away was lunches, cruising down highway to the strains of Taylor Swift, corn on the cob, watching boats, eating butter tarts and creamsicles, playing UNO, digging holes, building castles, making smores in the oven, going out for Kawartha Dairy Ice Cream, and reading Mary Poppins. Iris was impossible and so frustratingly two that sometimes the whole endeavour was too exhausting to be vacation, but it all came together in the end, even if the morning sounds of birds outside woke her up far earlier than we would have liked. I particularly enjoyed reading vintage Archie digests and doing the pie shack shimmy (see photo above).


We came home a week ago, and spent a fun long weekend in the city hanging out with our friends. I’ve been reading some terrific new books I’m excited to be able to share with you, and trying to get work done on a big project I’m looking forward to sharing with you soon—although Iris wasn’t sleeping well at all, which has put a cramp on my “working in the evening” plans. Further cramping has ensued since my swimming rash morphed into an insane reaction this weekend, colonizing my face, which is now swollen and gross. So I am not only hideous, itchy and uncomfortable, but was prescribed super hardcore antihistamines at a walk-in clinic this morning that have rendered me totally stupid. It is possible that I’ve written this entire post in Latin, and I don’t even realize. Veni. Vidi. Itchi.



CLzrWa8UwAYPPLKDermatological issues aside, my only real complaint about summer is that it’s half-done. A splendid one so far. This weekend well-spent even through the rashy trauma as I compulsively read Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, which I absolutely had to purchase used after reading Rohan Maitzen’s post about it. She writes, “If you ever read a book, or were a child, or read a book to a child–if your childhood was shaped in any way by the books you read–then you should buy this book and read it immediately.” It’s the best advice I’ve followed in ages, and I’d urge you to do the same. Certainly a window into the mind of the woman behind literary classics such as Where the Wild Things Are, Harriet the Spy, Good Night Moon, Charlotte’s Web, The Carrot Seed, Harold the Purple Crayon, and others. 500 pages and I read it in three days. I wish there was more.

July 24, 2015

If you need me, I will be in the hammock.

Farewell, my friends. I will see you in a few weeks. And until then, I leave you this image of an avocado that has been partially eaten by a squirrel. I am impressed by the precision of how the top was sliced off, and the intricate details in the marks in the flesh left behind by tooth and claw.

(It is not often that one gets to use that expression literally. Hope this is the first and last occurrence of such a thing for me for some time.)


July 23, 2015

Holiday Reads


We leave for the cottage on Saturday, and obviously we are not remotely packed, except my stack of books which I’ve had ready for weeks. Heartburn by Nora Ephron, a battered copy I found somewhere recently. I read it long ago but want to read it again as part of my research into funny woman authors. Still Life by Louise Penny, which was the first Gamache mystery. I’ve never read it before, and I always read Louise Penny at the cottage, and it will be good prep for the new Gamache book out later next month. The Home by Penelope Mortimer, who I was reminded of when my Book Club comrade sent this link, and I’ve wanted to read this title since seeing it referenced in Carol Shields and Blanche Howard’s letters. Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, by Laurie Colwin, another reread, for funny women reasons and because it’s Laurie Colwin. The Giant’s House, by Elizabeth McCracken, because I am nostalgic for when I read her Thunderstruck last summer. And a reread of Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle, because what is a summer without a novel by Barbara Pym?

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