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April 10, 2014

On Sue Townsend and Adrian Mole

adrian-mpleI can’t think of many books I loved when I was 8 that I still love now but only 500 times more. The first time I read an Adrian Mole book, I was too young for it, and couldn’t figure out what he was talking about when he was measuring his “thing” and I had a few curious ideas what “spots” were. See, it wasn’t just that I was young, but that the books were foreign, and I didn’t know who Noddy was so really didn’t understand about his wallpaper. Like many young protagonists I read when I was even younger than they were (hello, Holden Caulfield!) I took Adrian at face value and so it took me awhile to realize that Lo The Flat Hills of My Homeland probably wasn’t a very good book. But it didn’t matter, because by the time I figured it out, I loved Adrian Mole, following all his adventures right up until The Weapons of Mass Destruction, which came out in 2004 and which everybody at my workplace in Japan passed around until the book was in tatters.

Adrian Mole was integral in my love affair with England, which was long-lasting and huge with life-changing consequences. I am sure that it is from Adrian Mole that I first heard of bunting (strung up during the Royal Wedding in 1981) though I didn’t know what that was either. I can trace my obsession with commemorative tea-towels back to the Charles and Diana one that Adrian Mole’s dad hung on the front door in lieu of proper festivities. I moved to the Midlands in 2002 because I knew of it from Adrian Mole and I thought it was kind of funny (and plus I had no money so couldn’t afford to live in London). And there I met my husband, whom I dragged to Skegness because Adrian Mole had gone to Skegness and I thought that was funny too (and it was! Stuart hadn’t believed me. English people don’t have as much fun doing ironic Adrian Mole lower-class things as you or I do, but they are totally missing out). I still tease Stuart on a regular basis about his Adrian Mole-ish 1980s Margaret Thatcher childhood. He’s since told me who Noddy is. 

Oh, Pandora Braithwaite (who became an MP!). It is from Adrian Mole that I first heard the name Germaine Greer. I love that his mother became a radical feminist, and also that she regretted not naming Adrian “Brett”. Bert Baxter and his Woodbines and beetroot sandwiches and his Alsatian, Sabre. In later years, Adrian would impregnate a woman called Sharon Bott. How bully Barry Kent became a poetry sensation. And Nigel, who started a gay club at school, and Adrian was worried because now everybody would think Nigel was gay. Mr. Lucas next door, and Mrs. O’Leary (who gave a glimpse of her knickers while stringing bunting, if I remember correctly), and Mr and Mrs. Singh and all the little Singhs, and Big and Bouncy and Malcolm Muggeridge. Adrian Mole was so totally subversive, probably the naughtiest books in my school library. I am so glad that nobody ever noticed.

I love Sue Townsend. I read her other novels too, Rebuilding Coventry and Ghost Children, plus The Queen and I, which was terribly funny. I am quite sure I will reread Adrian Mole for the rest of my life, and they will never cease to make me laugh out loud. And so I was sad today to learn that she’d died at just 68. It’s a real loss that feels personal to me.

April 10, 2014

The M Word Events

the-m-word-coverForgive the relative silence here this week, but I am sick, Harriet has both learned to read and gone slightly insane, plus Iris just climbed an entire flight of stairs. And Playschool meeting/events in the evening 2 nights, and a trip to the dentist en famille. It’s been a busy week, but it’s got nothing on next week when it all starts kicking off. Which I am going to enjoy, every second of it. I am as determined of this as I am terrified of the whole scenario. Which is saying something.

On Monday April 14, The M Word is part of Indie Lit Night at the Starlight Social Club in Waterloo Ontario. Representing our book is the excellent Carrie Snyder, along with Jonathan Bennett, Tamai Kobayashi, Evan Munday, Sina Queyras, Nicholas Ruddock, Vivek Shraya, and Suzannah Showler. 7:30pm

On Tuesday April 15, we launch in Toronto at Ben McNally Books. I will be there, along with a whole bunch of Toronto contributors (and even one coming all the way from Cape Breton!). 6-8pm. There’s going to be cake.

On Wednesday April 16, Iris, my mom and I are taking the train to Kingston for a launch at Novel Idea Bookstore. I’m so excited about this event, which I’ll be participating in along with Susan Olding, Sarah Tsiang and Nancy Jo Cullen. 7:30pm.

On April 29, Maria Meindl and I will be taking part in the Different Drummer Books Book & Author Series in Burlington ON at the Burlington Golf and Country Club. 9:30 am.

The M Word goes west on Sunday May 3 for an event at Shelf Life Books in Calgary. Susan Olding, Fiona Tinwei Lam and Myrl Coulter will be reading, along with Judy McFarlane, author of Writing With Grace. 3pm. I won’t be there, but my sister will be, along with my baby nephew!!

I will be in Winnipeg on Tuesday May 6, where I will be reading at McNally Robinson with Kerry Ryan and Ariel Gordon, and I’m so excited about this. 7pm. There are rumours of cookies.

And then on Wednesday May 7, I’m heading to Hamilton with Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, Julie Booker, Maria Meindl to read at Bryan Prince Booksellers. 7pm.

Westward again for our event in Victoria BC at Russell Books on May 8 with Fiona Tinwei Lam and Marita Dachsel.

On Thursday May 15, I‘ll be at Another Story Book Shop on Roncesvalles Avenue in Toronto talking about motherhood and feminism with Melinda Vandenbeld Giles, editor of new book Mothering in the Age of Neoliberalism and Jasjit Sangha, editor of new book South Asian Mothering.

And on June 19, we’re doing a fun event at Parent Books in Toronto called Conversations About Mothers in Children’s Books. M Word contributors Heather Birrell, Heidi Reimer, Patricia Storms, and Amy Lavender Harris will be talking about themes from the anthology and how they relate to depictions of mothers from our favourite children’s books. 7pm

I’ll add more events to this page as they’re scheduled! And would also like to voice my gratitude to the fine bookshops across the country for hosting us. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: where would we be without you?

April 9, 2014

The Canadian Mad Men Reading List


Mad Men starts on Sunday! I hope you’re reading up.

April 8, 2014

The M Word is coming to Toronto!




For more events, see The M Word Page. Festivities actually kick off in Waterloo with Carrie Snyder on April 14.

April 8, 2014

Things Have Been Busy at 49th Shelf

I-love-Canadian-Books_largeIf you check out the 49thShelf blog regularly, none of this will be news to you, but if not, you’ll probably want to know about what’s been going down there lately because it’s good. March marked 3 years since I started out on the site as editor, and I commemorated the occasion with this amazing retrospective of my favourite posts from way back. Yesterday, we featured a wonderful excerpt from Katherine Govier’s new Mother Goose book, a reflection on the nursery rhymes she’s known all her life and read with her mother. (I will be writing about the book here very soon!). The excellent Ms. Kiley Turner has been putting together The Recommend Series this past while, and it’s full of great books and reasons to read them.

I wrote a post about memorable houses from CanLit. For International Women’s Day, I interviewed Rosemary McCarney, CEO of Plan Canada and author of new book, Every Day is Malala Day. And other cool interviews include one with author/librarian Ken Setterington for Freedom to Read Week about how censorship is complicated, and another with Nick Cutter, who may or may not be Craig Davidson, and who is author of the totally disgusting, excellent novel The Troop.

April 6, 2014

My Real Children by Jo Walton

MyRealChildren_Jo-WaltonJo Walton’s previous novel, Among Others, was one of my favourite books of 2012 and won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, which you can’t say about most books that are my favourite books of any year. I appreciate that because of Jo Walton, for me “the Hugo and the Nebula Awards” are now words that flow from my fingers like “Giller” or “Booker” do. Having made her start with fantasy in 2002, Walton’s writing moved in a science fiction direction with her alternate history “Small Change” series (which I can’t wait to read soon), and then proceeded to be altogether genre-busting with Among Others, which, in its unabashed bookishness, was embraced by passionate readers of all stripes. And now she has produced another such genre-busting book with My Real Children, the story of a woman with memory problems who can swear she’s lived two lives.

At first glance, the story recalls the movie Sliding Doors (Gwyneth and a fictional uncoupling, or not–remember?), or Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World—stories about the possibility of two destinies hinging on a single moment. But it also brings to mind Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, the twentieth century told through the experience of a character who gets to live it more than once. But where Walton’s take is particularly compelling and original, as it was with Among Others, is the way her fantastical elements exist in a so-solid reality, leaving it up to the reader to decide where the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur, if it exists at all.

Patricia Cowan is confused, we are told, and some days she’s even “Very Confused”, as the nurses document in their notes on a clipboard at the end of her bed. Is it simply her dementia, or can she remember two lives? Her different children come to visit, there are subtle differences between two care homes where apparently she resides, her different memories. Could this be possible? Is it just senility? Which conclusion is more plausible? And it’s a testament to the spell Walton casts that these questions don’t even matter. To Cowan herself, they certainly don’t.

The “sliding door” moment, that instant in which Patricia Cowan’s life cleaved in two, takes place in 1949 when she agrees to marry Mark. And also when she doesn’t. Up until this point, she’d been swept along in time, losing her brother in WW2, receiving a place at Oxford (because all the men were away, she says, explaining away her success with the tide). She does well at school, finds  a teaching job. But Mark’s less-than-romantic proposal is the definitive moment in which she becomes an agent in her fate. When she says, “Yes,” she finds herself “Tricia”, in a loveless marriage, wed to a tyrant who keeps her powerless and miserable. Saying, “No,” results in Pat, some temporary heartbreak, but then fulfilment found in travel, a writing career, a life partnership with a biologist called Bee.

So which are her real children, Patricia Cowan wonders? The four children she had with Mark? With the son who became a rock star and died young of AIDS? Or the three children she had with Bee, two her biological children and all three fathered by the photographer, Michael? And as the reader is taken through the chronology of these family lives, it becomes clear that Patricia Cowan’s lives took place against political backdrops as different as their domestic ones. As we suspect all along and is confirmed in the book’s final chapter, it’s a butterfly-flapping-its-wings scenario. Is it that Tricia, with a life otherwise devoid of purpose and therefore with time to devote to campaigning for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, is key to the eventual obliteration of such weapons? Whereas Pat lives in a world where nuclear weapons are used more than once, radiation seeping through the atmosphere to disastrous consequences decades later. The Soviets land on the moon. LBJ is implicated in the death of President Kennedy. IRA bombings, Cuban missiles, nuclear exchanges between India and Pakistan, gay marriage made legal in the 1980s, mandatory identity cards, Google in the 1990s, US and Russia aligned against Europe, or American returned to its pre-WW2 isolationist stance. The possibilities are fascinating, how one thing just leads to another. Like a book. Life a life.

As I read this book, I thought less of Kate Atkinson and Sliding Doors and more of Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald biography, which I read in December. Not because Walton and Fitzgerald are anything alike in terms of style, but rather that Fitzgerald and Patricia Cowan are near contemporaries with similar experiences–plans and legacies interrupted by wartime, coming of age in an era overseen by a new establishment, Oxbridge educations that culminate in disappointing marriages and women (in the case of Tricia/Trish) who discover their true capabilities later in life. I suppose it says something about Walton’s skill that her novel calls to mind a Hermione Lee biography, that Patricia Cowan’s two lives seem so convincingly lived.

As the bookish Walton undoubtedly knows, one book always leads to another. I mean, she clearly knows this sort of thing because she’s referenced Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes and Margaret Drabble before you even hit page 16. Eventually, as the end of the book drew nearer (and oh, when it finally happened, I was gutted. I might have wished Patricia Cowan had life after life so that I could have gone on forever reading them…), I was thinking about Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, which similarly spans realistic historical periods to end up in a  dystopian future. The atmosphere at the end of My Real Children is much the same, showing lives impacted by huge and sweeping histories but the details of these lives being the narratives that matter, the only constants in a history constructed of flux.

April 2, 2014

After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman

after-i'm-goneIt would be so easy to be absolutely enthralled by Laura Lippman’s latest novel, After I’m Gone, that you might forget to notice that it’s so magnificently structured. Written in alternating chapters between the present day from the perspective of a cold case cop, and the back story from the perspective of a whole cast of characters, it tells the story of Felix Brewer, shady wheeler dealer who goes on the lam in 1976 while facing a prison sentence for fraud. He leaves behind his wife and three daughters, as well as his mistress, Julie, who complicates the story further by disappearing herself almost ten years to the day after Felix vanished, the mystery of her whereabouts solved in 2001 when her body is discovered in a Baltimore ravine. But the mystery of her murder remains wide open, picked up in 2012 by retired homicide detective Sandy Sanchez, who’s trying to keep his mind off his own heartache. Who killed her and why? Where was she during all the years before her body was found? And how does all this connect to Felix Brewer?

Sandy’s chapters take place over a few weeks as the pieces of the case begin to come together, the alternating chapters also in chronological order but with a larger scope, moving from 1959 (when  Felix’s wife first meets him at a dance) to the present day, each one from the point of view of each of his family members. These separate points of view weave together seamlessly, each one filling in more of the background that Sandy Sanchez is after, but also providing each character her own rich back story–these chapters do not just drive the plot forward, but simultaneously add texture to the plot, each character with her own secrets unbeknownst to the other characters and not expected by the reader either. So that by the end of this book, we have this amazing many-sided shape which is the story, a story with so many pieces that fit together so perfectly that you’d think you’ve got the whole thing figured out, but you don’t. I promise.

It’s so rare to find a mystery whose solution and the journey to get to it are equally delicious.

April 1, 2014

They just happened to be standing nearby


“Strictly speaking…. this book is not about [my children]; they just happened to be standing nearby while I looked for illumination, and so they cast their moving shadows.”

March 31, 2014

The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower

forceOver and over again lately, the first line (which is also the title) of Dylan Thomas’s poem has been running through my mind: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower…” though not the rest of the poem, obviously. When spring finally arrives, one is allowed not to think things totally through to their logical conclusions. Though I sort of do, feeling a slight dread at the green creeping up through the soil–because first it’s crocuses and then forsythia, and irises (!), then full summer green, then the summer green that all gets to be a bit too much as weeds appear through the cracks in the pavement, and then and then and then. See, the crocuses aren’t even properly here, and I’m killing them already. The force, indeed. Isn’t it curious how winter always seems eternal while summer is a moment in time? Though apart from its joys, winter is mainly trudging about in heavy boots, the force itself remaining dormant.

But no, let’s start again. The force has driven the green fuse up from the ground. It is spring! It is spring! And while last spring felt full of the force, as we waited for our baby to arrive, it’s got nothing on this spring. Speaking of force. Speaking of Irises. I set her on the ground and she charges: go! go! go! And: grow! grow! grow! As if the rhyming words were interchangeable, which, if one is a 10-month-old baby, they sort of are. So she goes, driven. To crawl, to stand, to climb. After a tumble from the second step, our baby gates went up Saturday night. How can this be happening already? My incredulity partly because a second child’s first year goes by in the span of a few weeks, but also because, with Harriet, the gates were never entirely necessary. She was one of those babies of whom parents say, “I think she’s going to skip crawling,” in order to excuse the baby’s sluggishness. She had a force of course, oh yes she did, but it wasn’t physical propulsion. Whereas Iris is a blur.

Tomorrow is April. On Saturday, I went out and got my hair cut after nearly a year, and got my eyebrows waxed, and then went to Futures Bakery and drank a chai latte BY MYSELF whilst reading Jane Gardam’s Last Friends, which was so so wonderful, and so was the moment. There was no force. I’ve never been so much in the now, and it was such a commemoration of that day exactly a year ago when I took myself out for lunch just one last time, knowing that would be ages before I could afford such luxury of time and aloneness again. But we’re here! We made it. The journey so much smoother than I’d ever dared to suppose.

But it’s not the end, of course, oh no. The force keeps forcing onward, going and growing. The former the given and the latter the point.

March 30, 2014

In Love With Art by Jeet Heer


It’s funny that comics have an aura of exclusivity. They’re so of-the-people, pulpy, low-rent accessible. I grew up reading comics, but then these were Archie comics, which aren’t real comics, and so I’ve lost my footing in this world already. Legendary comics store The Beguiling is around the corner from my house, but I’ve never been there for many of the same reasons I’ve never walked into Prada, just a bit further east on Bloor. But then they opened a sister shop nearby, Little Island Comics for kids, and I have a kid, so we went there, and our family’s comics love has been growing ever since. Harriet and Stuart are currently reading Wonderland by Tommy Kovac and Sonny Liew over and over, I read Jane, the Fox and Me last week, Harriet is obsessed with Wonder Woman and the DC Comics I Can Read books, she adores Binky, we got our first Silly Lilly book a long time ago, and bought Jack and the Box at Little Island just the other day (after this great recommendation by Michael Barclay). Parenthood has been my gateway to the world of comics, and I’m so grateful for that.

Silly Lilly and Jack and the Box are published by TOON Books, a series of stylish, smart, well-designed comics for kids packaged neatly as hardcover books. TOON Books was founded by Francoise Mouly, who is better known (as much as Francoise Mouly is considered “known” at all) as the partner of Art Spiegelman, of Maus fame. Using interviews and archival research, Jeet Heer has written a short biography of Mouly, In Love With Art, in an attempt to bring Mouly out from her husband’s shadow, though it’s actually Mouly of the two whom I know best, from her work as founder and Editorial Director of TOON Books and also by her long-time position as Art Editor of The New Yorker with its iconic covers. I may not have known Francoise Mouly’s name, but it turns out I’ve been paying attention to her work for a long time.

In Love With Art is part of Exploded Views, a new series of short books published by Coach House Books, books that in their immediacy read like extended magazine articles. Heer, with his signature mix of down to earth and erudite (and the world’s best vocabulary—who knew that “shanghai” was a verb?) has created a fascinating, absorbing book that made me grateful for the mild temperatures that allowed to me to continue reading (mitten-less) even after I got off the subway and was walking down the street. It’s a book that fit in my coat pocket and I read it in a day, but kept talking about it after with everyone I ran into. “Francoise Mouly. You think you don’t know her, but you do. You’ve got to read this book.”

It’s a fascinating story of a woman in a man’s world, of her childhood and formative years coming of age in France around 1968. She studied architecture, developing an design aesthetic that she’s applied to every project she’s done since, including low-grade jobs like “colourist”, overriding general consensus that jobs like this don’t matter. Not a comic writer herself, instead she’s a comics editor–who even knew there was such a thing? And part of the reason you’ve never heard of her is because her greatest impact has been in helping well-known artists to create their best work. With Spiegelman, she edited the RAW comics magazine for years, work from which is reproduced in In Love With Art in full colour, alone with her memorable New Yorker covers.

I was as surprised as anyone to discover that I, a woman who grew up reading Archie’s Pals and Gals, was this book’s ideal reader, but then it’s not so surprising after all. Women’s lives, women’s stories, women’s art, women for whom motherhood is a kind of answer—it’s been my thing all along. Consider my view exploded then. In the best way.

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The M Word

The M Word Cover

Coming April 2014

The M Word Events
Waterloo: April 14 Indie Lit Night at Starlight Social Club, 8pm (w. Carrie Snyder)
Toronto: April 15 at Ben McNally Books, 6pm
Kingston: April 16 at Novel Idea, 7:30pm
Burlington: April 29 at Different Drummer's Book and Author Series, 9am
Calgary: May 4 at 3pm, Shelf Life, 3pm (w. Susan Olding, Fiona Lam & Myrl Coulter)
Winnipeg: May 6 at McNally Robinson, 7pm
Hamilton: May 7 at Bryan Prince Bookseller, 7pm
Toronto: May 15 at Another Story Book Shop, 7pm
Toronto: June 19 at Parent Books, 7pm
Everywhere Via Twitter Livechat: TBA

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