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February 19, 2021

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, by Cherie Jones

Do not let the beautiful cover fool you, or the setting in paradise: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, by Cherie Jones, is a brutal book, violent and disturbing, but there’s nothing gratuitous about the violence, and the storytelling is absolutely stunning.

It’s a story told in pieces about a group of people on a beach in Barbados, away from the pretty tourist snapshots. The night Lala gives birth to her daughter, her husband kills a white man in a botched robbery at one of those big houses on the beach, and so begins the story, but it also stretches back years and generations before it, with Lala’s mother and her grandmother Wilma, who’d been the one to warn Lala away from the caves on the beach “where bad man go when they die…men that are too bad to rest easy in their graves down in those tunnels harvesting souls for the Devil.” The sister in the story goes exploring anyway, because “what is the use of a tunnel if you don’t get to see where it lead?” And she narrowly escapes with her life, but she loses her arm, and Lala scoffs at that:

“Well I bet it not so bad having one arm,” says Lala. “She can still do things like everybody else, she can still get a husband and some children and a house.” / “Stupid girl,” says Wilma, “how she’s she going to sweep it?”

Sweeping a house is important when you live by a beach, for keeping up appearances, but it’s also a metaphor for the practical matters of day-to-day life, those things that provide safety and security, for taking care of oneself. And the women in this novel have all started out with disadvantages, as we discover as the story gets put together, piece-by-piece. What caused Wilma, her daughter Esme, and then Lala to be the way they are, the violence and trauma in their pasts which meant that they’ve never been able to count on anybody really, that their lives are tough and hardscrabble, and they’d take any avenue out of it, except that none of the avenues really tend to lead anywhere at all.

Take Lala, for instance, who ends up with Adan, who dotes on their baby, but beats her—he was her getaway from Wilma and her husband who’d preyed on Esme and driven her to her own sorry fate. And her connection to Adan’s friend Tone, which stretched back years, when she first discovered him working in the garden at the house her grandmother was cleaning, Tone suffering from something we don’t know what until the end of the book. Breadcrumbs, are what Jones offers her reader, clues and hints. The book is a mystery, but not in the conventional way, because we know who did it from the novel’s first pages. It was Adan in the big house with a handgun. But what happens next? And the way the rest of the story unfolds is tragic, mesmerizing, twisty and surprising, Jones managing a complex and nuanced treatment of even the most despicable characters (and her most sympathetic characters get to behave despicably).

There’s also the wife of the dead man in the big house, herself from the island and her husband had been her getaway, but now he’s been murdered and here she is, right back where she started. The police officer with the digestive issues who thinks he’s putting the pieces together, but the pieces are all wrong. The sex worker who’s fed up with the cop who’s been threatening to arrest her since she stopped sleeping with him. Tone, who’s been running his whole life and can’t catch a break, and it doesn’t look like his fate’s due to change anytime soon.

The ending of this book is devastating, but perfect. Literally uplifting, and I’d say spiritually as well, and it’s hardly heartwarming, but instead heartsoaring, propelled by the power of story, the magic of Cherie Jones’ characters and prose.

February 17, 2021

Gleanings

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February 16, 2021

The Midnight Bargain, by C.L. Polk

I’m not especially fond of the Canada Reads debates. I find them frustrating and annoying, to be honest, though this is mostly because of my own sensibilities than anything else. I don’t really like yelling at the radio. Last year, Jael Richardson did a daily recap of the debates on Instagram Live and I preferred following the series this way to the show itself. What I do love, however, is a Canada Reads lineup like what they’ve come up with this year, a list of books that are off the beaten track, that I might not have picked up otherwise, and that don’t immediately seem to have much in common, which means the connections between them are fascinating (and this is why I am not especially fond of the Canada Reads debates—I love the idea of how the books are enriched by their relationships to each other rather than having to pit them as competitors).

It helps that I’ve already read three of the titles on the list—Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots; Butter Honey Pig Bread, by Francesca Ekwuyasi; and Two Trees Make a Forest, by Jessica J. Lee—and that I really loved them. And that I probably wouldn’t have read the final two titles otherwise, but not it seems kind of lazy not to read them all. Even if C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain seems so far from up my alley that it’s in a different universe altogether. “It’s fantasy meets a regency romance,” I told my husband. He said, “But you don’t really like either of those things.”

“Ahh,” I answered him. “The power of hybridity.”

If not for Canada Reads, I wouldn’t have read The Midnight Bargain, set in an otherworld that feels a but like 19th-century England, but with magic, and if colonialism had never happened. I will admit that the world-building felt arduous to me at times, which is often my problem with fantasy—so much to keep track of and understand, when I’d prefer to get lost in the plot. But it started to pay off when it meant that the plot would have kinds outcomes that I’d never encountered in a novel before, where characters motivations turned out to be so much more complex and fascinating than they could have been in a world that was familiar.

Beatrice is a sorceress and about to embark on her first bargaining season, where she will be paired off with a husband, especially important since her father’s business stumbles have landed their family in enormous debt. But here’s where it gets complicated—once paired off, Beatrice will be required to wear a collar to suppress her magic powers, supposedly because the risk of being pregnant and inhabited by spirits is just too great, and so women are not permitted to practice magic until their childbearing years are over. But really this is just an excuse to keep women from realizing their own power, which suits the patriarchy just fine. But Beatrice has a plan—she’s been practising magic in secret and is so close to becoming a full-fledged Magus. If she can complete her self-taught course before her bargaining season, can she convince her father to let her stay single and join him in running their family business, saving her family from financial ruin and keeping her freedom at once?

But when Beatrice meets Ianthe Lavan, things get more complicated. Turns out he’s everything she’s dreamed of and so wealthy that her family’s fortunes would be saved by their union–but is she willing to give up the most essential part of herself to fulfill societal expectations?

Is such a thing worth the promise of love?

Totally not my kind of thing at all, but that’s what I liked best about it. The Midnight Bargain was rich, absorbing and wonderful, totally transporting.

February 16, 2021

Good Weekends

I’ve written about this before, and I’ll probably write about it forever, but I remember riding the train to work when I lived in Japan, my little red flip phone with all the charms in my hand, and texting my husband, except then he was my boyfriend, “Thank you for a wonderful weekend.”

For the first few years of our relationship, one of us or both of us was always abroad, and I think it infused our domestic pattern with a kind of urgency, free time not to be wasted. We got out and did stuff, and went places, train rides and bike rides. I had a scrapbook then, and I don’t anymore, but I’ve never stopped feeling compelled to do something with my wide open days. And now that I am almost 42, a huge part of that compulsion is that if I don’t burn a lot of energy, I’ll be unable to sleep.

The past year has been a tough time to be the family social convener, possibilities shifting from the infinite ones that a city can offer to, “What alley are we going to walk down today?” (I saw a very funny meme on Instagram on the weekend in which a person comes to the realization that a daily walk is not, in fact, an adequate substitution for a rich and fulfilling life.)

But I think I’ve done a fairly respectable job of keeping us from dying of boredom. We’ve been booking our carshare every two weeks for a trip out of the neighbourhood, which has been fun. We still kind of hate skating, but booking weekly skates means something regular in our calendar (yay!) plus they kick you off after 45 minutes on the rink (also, yay!). We’ve done fun things like get afternoon tea at home from the Windsor Arms Hotel over Christmas. Lots of takeout. If all else fails, we walk to Bloomers at Bloor and Ossington to get donuts. There is also a creme brulee place at the top of the hill on Bathurst Street, that makes for as satisfying a walk as it does a snack, and we can walk home via the Baldwin Steps.

(Please don’t write a comment about treats negating the purposes of walking. Nope. You get both. It’s a perfect system.)

This weekend was particularly lovely. Saturday morning oh-so-lazy, and I love this, because the weekdays aren’t (we get up at 7:00 and do yoga) and so it’s something different, a treat. If I’ve not had at least two pots of tea and read the entire newspaper, I’m not satisfied. And the afternoon we got in the car and drove out to Humber Bay Shores in west end, where people are skating on frozen ponds, and we weren’t brave enough to skate, but we walked, and it was so much fun. And then walking along the beach, ice frozen along the shore line and the ducks that bobbed along anyway, and I was so happy. I am always happiest by the lake, no matter the season, and I’d remembered to wear snowpants so I wasn’t even cold.

Sunday was Valentines Day, but even more important, it was WAFFLES DAY, which comes but once a week. We had two great Valentines Day plans, which were excellent. 1) A walk down to Little Island Comics on College Street to pick-up the books I’d ordered for my children for Valentines Day gifts, and then 2) we bought the kids pizza and pop (a big deal for 21st century children! Even though when I was a kid we mainlined it), and the even got complimentary canolli, and they ate it in front of the TV while Stuart and I picked up a five-course dinner from Piano Piano, and ate it in the kitchen by the light of the oven hood bulb and the Christmas lights hanging over the door, which made a truly splendid ambience and it really felt like a date.

I know this is a truly boring weekend plan when I lay it all out there (there are people who climb mountains and spear great white sharks, I know) but it’s a pandemic and everything is closed, and also I had work to do all weekend, in between the five course meals and trips to the beach. (When you put it like that, I almost sound like a movie star!)

Monday was a holiday here in Ontario, Family Day, which was designed before a time when family members spent months on end in each other’s company and no one else’s. The plan was to deliver small Valentines packages to friends in our neighbourhood, which we did, with so much complaining, because our children (one in particular) had truly reached the end of their ropes and were so ready to get back to school. But it all came together in the evening when we partook in a cooking class I’d found out about last week when the food bank sent me an email—the event was setting a world for the world’s largest cooking class, raising money for the food bank (they raised more than $40,000) and giving us a fun opportunity to cook a delicious meal together. And it was really fun, and wonderful, and delicious, and made me realize my children need to spend more time around the stove.

I capped off the long weekend with a hot bath, where I finished rereading Happy All the Time, by Laurie Colwin. (The other book I read this weekend was my friend Chantel Guertin’s forthcoming novel, Instamom, and it was amazing.)

The kids went back to school this morning for the first time in nearly two months. We had to walk through freshly fallen snow to get there, and it was a winter wonderland. And once they were dropped off, I would have sent that same text message to my husband that I sent long ago, but I didn’t have to, because we’re always together these days, so I just told him.

February 12, 2021

A Black Man’s Toronto

Something I have noticed with Black History Month this year is how Black History is all around, from plaques for Albert Jackson, Toronto’s first Black postman, who lived in my neighbourhood, and Olympian Sam Richardson, who attended the high school down the street, to the streetcar rolling by displaying photos of Black Canadians like Lincoln Alexander and Jean Augustine.

Last weekend after I learned that a nearby skating rink was named for Harry R. Gairey, a Black community leader, and he’d published a book, I was lucky to find a weathered library copy. An oral history, transcribed and edited by Donna Hill, mother of writer Lawrence, A Black Man’s Toronto was published by the Multicultural History Society of Ontario in 1981.

A few years ago, Kamal Al-Solaylee wrote a piece in Canadian Notes & Queries about the whiteness of nostalgia, our fondness for heritage photos that usually omit the multicultural histories of our cities. How easy it might be to suppose that Black people and Brown people haven’t always been part of the history of these places too.

And how our sense of the places we live is enriched by knowing all parts of the history. I know the streets and buildings Gairey writes about in his story, all the churches in Toronto, the school his son attended, the downtown neighbourhood he and his wife lived in before he moved out to Scarborough in the 1970s. The West Indian Club on College Street that burned down in 1968— I would never have known, but for this book. Walked by the place yesterday and felt its ghost.

Gairey was a union leader, became a civil rights activist, and a leader and supporter of Black and other immigrants to the city. He helped to challenge Canada’s racist immigration laws and brought forth Toronto’s first anti-discrimination laws after his son was prohibited from entering a skating rink.

His history is Toronto’s history and I am so glad to know it.

February 11, 2021

Slippers

I bought slippers on Monday, and they have improved my life exponentially, except that my feet are now so perpetually warm that when opportunity arises to leave the house (not that it comes up often) I almost want to pass it up, because then I’d have to take off my slippers, and whoever would want to go through that?

Not that we go anywhere anyway, except on walks around our neighbourhood before and after virtual school, and we’ve really exhausted every single alley way, running out of diversions.

Thankfully, the children are heading back to school on Tuesday after six weeks of learning from home, which has been great, actually, because their teachers have created an excellent program and they’re both at the right age and have the appropriate learning style to engage with it properly and without me having to be very involved at all. But I’m beginning to see the toll it’s taking on them, being home all the time, the stimulation they’re missing.

I’m finding mid-week difficult, was the thing I kept saying last week when it was Wednesday and I could not bear to cook, so we got take-out instead, and I was strung out on sadness and anxiety, and why do I keep falling apart on Wednesdays? It was curious. It’s happened every single Wednesday this year, except the day of my Toronto Library event (which is a good thing, really!) and I’d supposed that maybe that fun and exciting thing to do was a distraction from the curse of what Wednesday had become to me, the toll of a pandemic in winter heavy to carry through an entire week without me collapsing into a wreck.

But no. What if Wednesdays keep being hard because hard things keep happening on Wednesdays? Or even good things (Inauguration Day) so packed with feelings and the weight of the nightmare we’ve been living through that celebrations become a mix of emotions. Last Wednesday it was the announcement of school reopenings, which took me by surprise. Schools had been scheduled to reopen on February 10, but for some reason I’d decided that was a far-off date in the future that I’d never actually have to grapple with, and so the news it was imminent spiked my anxiety, and of course that so very little (nothing?) was being done to ensure that these reopenings were something parents and teachers could have confidence in.

Yesterday, however, was okay. I ventured into the day very carefully, but sailing ended up being fairly smooth. I realized the problem was not with Wednesdays in general, but possibly particular ones.

One thing that is definitely making my life better in general is another session of my blogging course, the second February in which I’ve run an intensive version with a fabulous group of writers. I love it so much, which I say mostly because this fact continues to surprise me—I started an online course because teaching in person made me uncomfortable and I wasn’t craving the engagement, really, but then a guided course proved more popular than a self-directed one, so I made it happen…and it turned out to be one of the most delightful projects that I’ve ever undertaken? I feel very lucky that this gets to be my work, and grateful that my ideas resonate with so many smart and wonderful people, and happy to be contributing in my own little way to smart and thoughtful people taking up space online.

I also like the framework and momentum that it adds to February, a season that sometimes seems to stretch on forever.

Every post, every day, every step (in my cozy) bringing us a little bit closer to springtime, to crocuses in bloom.

February 9, 2021

Gleanings

Do you like reading good things online and want to make sure you don’t miss a “Gleanings” post? Then sign up to receive “Gleanings” delivered to your inbox each week(ish). And if you’ve read something excellent that you think we ought to check out, share the link in a comment below.

February 9, 2021

The Solution is Patience

The solution is patience.

Though not always.

Sometimes the solution is to rise up and make noise and stomp your feet and demand to be heard, and rally in support of others, and organize a potluck, and shake your fists, use your power.

But sometimes the solution is just to wait.

When the teacher hasn’t logged on to virtual school. When the vaccines are delayed. When technical glitches impede your progress. When you can’t find your hairbrush. When people are insufferable. When conspiracy theorists run rampant. When you’re feeling sad and like there’s no way out of that place. When it’s only February and you want it to be spring.

The solution is to breathe. To know the knot will untangle, and pulling on it now will only make the thing tighter. Instead, to be patient. Hunker down. Buy a cheap bouquet of tulips.

The solution is to put the kettle on, and brew a cup of tea.

February 5, 2021

Dizzy Righteousness

“…a rising army of impossibly unhappy people, their ambitions both vague and vast, who have come to understand that the dizzy righteousness of that derangement is the point.” —David Roth, “The March of the American Kooks”

For a long time, quitting Twitter—for me— seemed about as possible or likely as quitting oxygen, even if the whole experience was so much less rewarding. I didn’t like Twitter (anymore—once upon a time it had been a source of friendship, inspiration and fun, but that all changed around 2014 or thereabouts) but it was necessary, it seemed. It was true there were things I knew from Twitter that were tremendously worthwhile. If not for Twitter, I might have travelled to the UK at year ago this March, but I was put off by disturbing tweet threads by Italian ICU doctors with perspectives that weren’t yet being reported in the newspaper. Twitter was how I found out about everything, from breaking news to pop culture scandals to political developments. It was the platform from which I interfaced with so much of the world…and then it began to occur to me that this was the problem. That while the world was difficult, Twitter only made it worse.

There was a reason that I quit Twitter, finally, but now I can’t even remember what it was, and perhaps this is the point. When I finally logged back onto Twitter a few weeks after my first break—I still have an account but check it every 60 days instead of 60 times a day, which is a big shift for me—Scott Baio was trending for arranging mugs in a department store, and that really just clinched it, because what if I’d never found out that had happened? What else could I have done with those brain cells?

I had spent the last three years on Twitter being furious, mainly about our provincial government and various terrible things they’d done, and while I found solidarity and community with other people who felt the same on the platform, the platform for practical purposes wasn’t useful to me. All my online fury actually gave me a peculiar sympathy for the kind of person who gets radicalized through online groups and decides to drive his truck from Manitoba to Ottawa to smash into the gates at the entrance of the Prime Minister’s residence. Because online rage is a self-perpetuating spiral, and spitting one’s feelings into the online void only underlines how impotent most of us really are, and that only makes you angrier (and the cycle begins again). My furious responses to the Minister of Education’s tweets were not useful to me, nor him or anybody, and it wasn’t like he was even reading them. This performance could not be more similar (or futile) than screaming into the wind. The only entity that profited was the social media platform because it seemed I couldn’t quit it.

Sometime last summer I began to insist that I could no longer view our government as an adversary. Which is not to say that our government was not an adversary, but this arrangement was making me irate and unhappy, and it didn’t make anything better. Further, my children were to be heading back to school in September, and I really decided that having some trust in the system was necessary for me to be a functioning citizen. Like, I’d rather trust and be wrong than end being that guy in a tinfoil hat. And I realized too that my online interactions were so much of the reason why I was angry all the time. That normal people didn’t necessary function this way, and maybe there was something more targeted and effective I could do with my energy than be constantly furious or full of anxiety, waiting for the next calamity to come across the timeline. And that if I just decided not to be furious all the time about the government, flicked it off with a switch, would that make an iota of difference to how the government functioned? It wouldn’t make anything better, but it also wouldn’t be worse.

“I feel like everybody on social media is always yelling at me,” I said the other night to one adult person I spend all of my time with these days. Trying to articulate just what it was that was making me uncomfortable—not just with Twitter, but the Facebook and even Instagram with its weird powerpoint social justice stories. I can’t stand them. “And it’s not that I don’t care about social justice,” I continued, but I am beginning to think of “social justice” as an abstract principle as an ambition that’s also vague and vast. I am still really tired of social justice memes and wish that people would write their own stories, feel their own feelings, share their own ideas instead of parroting somebody else’s.

This is not an “everybody on the left is brainwashed, it’s a cult, cancel culture, blah blah” kind of post. I still stand by guiding principle that one should never do anything for which Jonathan Kay or his mother might leap to their defence. A lot of people who’ve spent less time online than I have imagine themselves bravely rallying for free speech, due process, and against slippery slops, and they don’t know that they’re being manipulated by so many bad-faith actors. I’m not “just asking questions” or wondering if political correctness has gone too far. And I am definitely not saying “Goodbye to All That” to “the church of social justice” (as one viral essay once put it), or talking about “both sides.” I know what side I am on, and it’s the side of anti-racism, alleviating poverty, supporting marginalized people, lifting up the oppressed, supporting workers’ rights and helping make the world a safer, more gentler place for weirdos to be who they are. But I just have recently become dissuaded of the notion that social media is the place to make all this happen. (Blogs, on the other hand…) Considering that there are other ways to be engaged. That perhaps what social media is isn’t even actually engagement.

David Roth’s “The March of the American Kooks” is one of the most interesting, succinct and illuminating pieces I’ve read about the lunacy of American politics at this moment, articulating so much of what I was trying to get at as I rambled on about everybody yelling at me on the internet. And there is no doubt that the far-right fringes have become a clear and present, violent danger. When there are people marching in the streets with literal Nazi flags, and you’re still going on about “antifa,” I think you’ve missed the point, or you’ve been watching the wrong television channels. I am still confused about how after Nazis went marching in Charlottesville in 2017, perfectly reasonable people wanted to remind us that the left has its extremism too. January 6, 2021, my dudes. This is what comes of both-sidesing. The threat and danger is clearly situated along one specific branch of the political spectrum, full stop.

But part of the reason it’s especially threatening and dangerous is that “dizzy righteousness of derangement” which stretches right across the board, that is not just specific to conspiracy theorist kooks. Which makes it difficult to turn vast and vague ambitions into anything tangible beyond clicks. Fed by social media platforms designed to stoke our rage (Elamin Abdelmahmoud writes about this here), we’ve all bought into this idea that righteous online fury is the way to the change the world—but I think we’re being played. This notion has given us nothing substantial or useful to meet the moment—and its clear and present danger—with. It’s also profoundly uninteresting.

From Roth’s essay: “The politics these people profess is not about helping anyone, lord knows, or really about any kind of ideological program at all. It is about an obsessive and even loving taxonomy of and fixation upon enemies and problems, and the way it works is through relentlessness, and through a refusal to ever stop performing weird arias of anger and umbrage.”

The outcomes are different, and perhaps so too are the extremes, but the symptoms are the same, and I’m done with it. When you can see yourself in an article about a bunch of conspiracy Q-uacks, it’s time to close the browser, turn the page.

February 4, 2021

Things to Read During the Big Game

This is the photo that came up when I searched my Google Images for “sports.” GO TEAM!

One of my favourite things about how my life turned out is that I married somebody who cares about sports even less than I do, which means that I got to give him the big news that there was some kind of sports event this weekend, which I only know about because I keep receiving e-newsletters from food bloggers with subject heading GAME DAY EATS. (I was actually only able to parse out what the game in question was because I’d heard about the poet who was scheduled for the halftime show.)

And I honestly felt like perhaps I was the only blogger on earth whose content wasn’t Superbowl-adjacent (it IS the Superbowl, right? And Superbowl is a compound word? Or is it Super Bowl? I don’t know. I am going to choose to remain in ignorance. At least I know it’s about football, by which I mean the oblong, brown American kind, and so I’m feeling a little bit savvy.) Just because I don’t actually care about sports doesn’t mean I don’t want to be part of the action.

And so that end, I have put together a list of some of my favourite game-day literary experiences, books that are perfect to get lost in and you don’t even have to worry about the score.

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