November 9, 2014
So on Thursday night, I was at the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards, sitting up the in the balcony (because the seats on the main floor had been filled while we were still out in the lobby getting that one last glass of wine), and the program was great—wonderful books celebrated, Shelagh Rogers was the host—but there I was reading a novel. Which is a shameful confession, as usual, my complete and utter failure to be in the moment, but what you have to understand about the moment was that I was on the final 100 pages of Margaret Sweatman’s Mr. Jones. A spy novel, no less, intrigue upon intrigue—and upon even more intrigue by that final stretch. How was I supposed to be doing anything else? And something more to understand: this isn’t a small book. A 500 page thick hardback, and I brought it in my purse. Which tells you everything, really. Mr. Jones is an electric, compelling, scintillating read.
Ok, it’s 500 pages, but these are small pages—perhaps a bit too small? 500 narrowish pages are tough to get a grip on, so I dropped the book a few times. It was hard to hold open with my feet. (Does this count as legitimate criticism?) Apart from these niggling details, the book is of stunning design, so gorgeous. Check out the end papers. The prose just as appealing from an aesthetic point of view, all comma splices and curious sentences. The effect of the book as a whole slightly dizzying, as perspective moves 360 degrees, from character to character, but only in pieces. We never see it all at once until it all comes together at the end. Hence the last 100 pages, and my furtive reading in the auditorium balcony in the dark.
It’s a period piece, the spy novel ala Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana. Emmett Jones is Canadian, a World War Two Bomber Commander disillusioned by his wartime deeds and adrift in post-war Toronto. Attending university, he finds himself attracted to John Norfield, a charismatic figure with Communist sympathies, in which Emmett too becomes embroiled, partly out of a need to belong to something, and because of how he is drawn to Norfield (and Norfield’s sometime girlfriend, Toronto deb Suzanne).
We first meet Jones in 1953, a civil servant in External Affairs, post-Gouzenko and the Cold War (and McCarthy) heating up, and he’s under investigation with the RCMP for possible Communist connections. Emmett is now married to Suzanne, with a young daughter, and Norfield is a distant figure in their past—or so the Jones’ pretend as they attempt an idyllic 1950s life. But there are complications. Jones had fathered a son in Japan, where he was stationed in the late 1940s, and his own background (born and raised to Canadians in Japan) makes him a mysterious figure in the Civil Service, particularly as troubles in Vietnam are beginning and all things Oriental are viewed with suspicion (Asia seemingly a monolith vulnerable to to a Communist sweep). Suzanne too has trouble fitting into a cookie-cutter life, her subversive photography revealing her interests in a way that won’t necessarily be helpful for her husband’s career.
And there are other matters we see, as Sweatman moves us back and forth in time, through the 1940s and 1950s, when politics were complicated and nothing was ever quite as it seemed. There is no whole truth, we begin to understand, but only parts of a truth, and they come together to form a puzzle whose final pieces are harrowing and powerful. A Cold War spy novel with a Canadian bent—and a beautiful one to boot. A rare bird after all, Mr. Jones is, just like Jones himself is, perplexing, enigmatic, mysterious, and so intriguingly aloof.
November 6, 2014
Today I was quite thrilled to find my recent post, “On Uncertainty, Mistakes and Accidental Cake” included on Elan Morgan’s Five Star Blog Roundup. I was thrilled because this was some great company, writing-wise, but also because of how the Five Star Roundup reminds us that we are all readers online, as well as writers, and that there is a whole world of thoughtful writing out there to explore. So do check out the roundup, this week and every week, and many thanks to Elan for including me, and for all her work fostering community and action online.
November 6, 2014
Such a wonderful celebration of books tonight at the Carlu in Toronto as we celebrated some of the best in Canadian children’s books. Obviously, I am thrilled because Julie Morstad’s How To won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, and I am a Julie Morstad disciple.As I wrote in my review last year, “The premise is unbelievably clever, but How To‘s genius lies in its simplicity. I love the substance behind its charm as well, that the text is posing and the illustrations are answering such fundamental questions. “How to be happy” is the book’s final statement, accompanied by a two-page spread of children dancing, moving and being together. It’s a lesson as perfect as it is profound.”
Another contender for the Marilyn Baillie Prize was Where Do You Look? by Marthe Jocelyn and Nell Jocelyn, which we have out of the library at the moment and I just keep renewing. A fabulous puzzle of a book that is, as with any book by M. Jocelyn, a visual treat, but which also points towards the puzzles of language and the complexity of the world, which is the lesson I want to teach my children before almost any other. This book does the trick, and it’s also fun. I think we’re going to have to pick up our own copy…
Another book we have out of the library that I’m not going to have to purchase is The Man With the Violin by Kathy Stinson and Dušan Petričić, because it took the top prize tonight and everybody in attendance received a copy to take home. And I’m thrilled, because I love this one, based on a true story about violin virtuoso Joshua Bell who played in a Washington DC subway one day, and nobody noticed. Stinson tells the story from the perspective of a small boy who longed to stop to listen, and the story’s amazing power lies in Petričić’s illustrations which really do draw sound, and also highlight the amazingly different ways that adults and children perceive the world. A most deserving winner for sure.
I was also pleased that my friend Andrew Larsen’s In the Tree House took the Readers’ Choice Award, in particular because I remember him once telling me how his son had told him that his books weren’t funny enough for kids to pick. And now Andrew can say, HA! I love In the Tree House, whose story touched me so much and continues to as I’ve read it over and over again. It’s a book for the ages. So wonderful to see it celebrated tonight. With so many others too—books by Isabelle Arsenault, Ruth Ohi, Erin Bow, and more! It was a really wonderful evening with triumph after triumph.
Canadian children’s publishing is a powerful force, and it’s an honour to be a small part of it.
November 4, 2014
Could I have chosen a better book to pick up on Halloween than Hilary Mantel’s new short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher? Just check out that cover? And no surprise that ghosts pervade the stories in the book, since this is the author of Beyond Black. A woman whose memoir was called Giving Up the Ghost after all (though she hasn’t altogether). I am just a bit Hilary Mantel mad, but I can’t bear enormous historical novels, and so I was quite thrilled about this new book, contemporary Hilary Mantel, the kind I like the very best. And the stories were terrific, the writing exquisite. Lines like, “Then her hands opened. The floor was limestone and the glass exploded.” What writer would set it up that way? Mantel is so smart, so sly. Such deviousness. I love her. Oliver Cromwell, I could take him or leave, but Hilary Mantel in the here and now.
Or at the least in the early 1980s, moments before Thatcher meets her fate: “Who has not seen the door in the wall?… [N]ote the door: note the wall: note the power of the door in the wall that you never saw was there. And note the cold wind the blows through it, when you open it a crack. History could always have been otherwise…”
Another weird and wonderful book is The Search for Heinrich Schlogel by Martha Baillie, whose Giller-nominated The Incident Report was one of my favourite books of 2009. The new novel comes from a similarly curious sensibility, seemingly created by an archivist with uncanny access to the materials comprising the life of Schlogel, a man who is unremarkable in a number of ways, except that he slips through a hole in time while hiking through the Arctic in 1980, and reemerges 30 years later. Not to even any real end either, and he keeps slipping through our archivist’s fingers (and our own). I enjoyed the book, though also found it at a distance (as it was meant to be), but was compelled throughout the narrative by the strangeness and Baillie’s beautiful writing. It left me baffled, but cast a spell.
November 2, 2014
Tomorrow night in my blogging course, we will be discussing Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”, which really might be one of my favourite pieces of writing ever, and whose wisdom is remarkably applicable to blogging, as well as to life itself. “To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.”
So I’ve been rereading the essay, following its twists and turns (and thinking about how much the public streets walked by Woolf’s narrator in “Street Haunting” can stand in for the blogosphere, “a form of society that doesn’t enforce identity but liberates it, the society of strangers, the republic of the streets, the experience of being anonymous and free that big cities invented”).
And then there was an excursion to Kensington Market to purchase not a pencil, but boots for the grown-ups in our family, because the shop there that caters to Portuguese construction workers is the best place we know to buy new Sorels. This was yesterday, and we’d woken up to flurries, so it seemed essential that we buy boots immediately. Plus while in the market, we’d get to pick up wood-smoked bagels and sausages from Sanagans for our evening meal. Once the boots were bought, Stuart with stroller was sent on the bagel errand, while Harriet and I took a quick diversion into Good Egg to scope out potential birthday presents for him.
Where I found this book, Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty, based on her illustrated New York Times column. I’d never read the column, but I had been reading Solnit’s essay, which references Kalman’s work, her art, this book. And here was the book in my hands, so I had to have it. I came out of the shop with a stack of books, but pleased with myself. “Only one of these is for me.”
When I got home and went through the Solnit essay again, however, I found that I’d been mistaken. While a section of “Woolf’s Darkness” indeed shares a title with Kalman’s book, Solnit doesn’t mention Kalman at all. I’d made the whole thing up. I’d bought the book by accident. Which was kind of interesting to me, because I am so interested in the connections between books, how they speak to one another, and now I’m fascinated too by the idea of the mistaken allusion, the connection that was never there at all. But now it is, because I supposed it was. Our reading lives are such a tangled web.
All was not lost though. While Kalman’s book was far from Solnit’s essay (though for me, the two shall be linked forevermore—and they’re actually interesting companions), the book was wonderful. It was as though my mistaken allusion had been a trick to get The Principles of Uncertainty into my hands, where it had belonged all the while.
Full of gorgeous images, funny stories, curious questions, and delightful things. It has an index, as all the best books do, and an appendix with images of postcard collections (one of postcards with waterfalls), collected food packets, a list of all the characters in The Idiot by Dostoevsky, and the family recipe for the honey cake referenced on page 54:
“The kitchen is small, spare and shiny. We drink tea an eat honey cake in the hot stillness of the afternoon.”
This afternoon, I baked that cake with Harriet, because today had an extra hour within and there was space for such a thing. We had to borrow a bundt pan from our neighbour, Sarit, because we don’t have a bundt pan even though I thought we did. It seems there is no limit to what I’m capable of remembering wrong.
We had a good time baking—it is much less frustrating baking with Harriet now than when she was three and compelled to stick her hands in the batter (and she sneezes in the bowl hardly ever now). I explained to her that we were making a cake from the book that I had bought by mistake, and it’s that a wonderful thing about the universe—that an accidental book can lead to cake in the oven on a sunny afternoon:
“And then the all-clear sounded and people returned, hope undiminished. They returned, so elegant and purposeful to the books. / What does this have to do with bobby pins and radiators and kokoshniks? One thing leads to another.”
Then when we were all done, I proceeded to TWICE pick up the bundt pan (which was constructed of two parts) incorrectly, separating the bottom from the sides and batter seeping out onto the table. (“I heard at least two ‘fucks,'” Stuart inquired after. “What went wrong?”) As I spatula’d up the mess, Harriet patiently parroted what I’d been saying to her about the accidental book as we’d baked, that sometimes mistakes lead us in the most interesting directions.
“I don’t know if it’s quite the same with baking,” I confessed, sorry that everything was not so poetic, but perhaps it is, or it’s just that this cake is forgiving, because it was, and the cake was wonderful. Delicious, moist, and a perfect balance of spice and sweet. One thing leading to another indeed, and what good fortune when the thing one’s being led to is cake.
- Purchase The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman from McNally Robinson, Canada’s Largest Independent Bookstore
November 2, 2014
Harriet made a most excellent Zita the Space Girl this Halloween (thanks to my mom’s sewing skillz), and the swishy cape resulted in her being even more powerful than usual—check out her superheroic stance. We do love Zita, whose super powers result from her strong sense of loyalty, her tenacity, and talent for friendship. Space girl though she is, there is nothing otherworldly about her. When Harriet wore her costume to school, she took along a picture of Zita for educative purposes, as the character is not quite as well known in kindergarten as she ought to be. We were glad that rumours of all the other girls in the class dressing up as princesses had been vastly overstated. It was a good Halloween, albeit soppy. (The photograph here was taken earlier in the week as we went to a Halloween party. On the way home, a couple of big kids recognized Harriet’s costume and told her it was cool!) I kept being afraid that Harriet’s cape would trail in jack o’ lantern candles and go up in flames, but as the cape was drenched, it wasn’t possible. Fortunately.
We had fun reading Waiting for the Great Pumpkin this year, a new collection of old Peanuts Halloween comics. In which Linus protests to the dubious Sally that he thought all little girls were sweet and innocent and believed everything they were told. “Welcome to 1962,” is her retort. The whole book is funny and wonderful. It was good to read, along with Don Freedman’s Tilly Witch.
Iris was a pumpkin this year, because it was the costume we had on hand for people who are approximately the size of Iris. It does not seem so unfathomable, however, that she’ll be able to choose her own costume next year. She is pretty articulate already (particularly if you count “screaming” as articulate) and has strong opinions, so we were glad we were able to get her to consent to wear it. She had fun trick-or-treating, and seemed to get into the whole hollowed-out squash/knocking on strangers’ doors for candy groove of Halloween. Some people seemed suspicious that we’d sent her out with her own candy bag, as though we had other intentions for her haul than her consuming it. “No no,” we assured them. “Candy’s fine for babies. And she is particularly a fan of peanut M&Ms…” Just like her mother. Okay.
October 28, 2014
I love Elaine McCluskey’s short stories, and have been looking forward to her third collection, Hello, Sweetheart, which follows The Watermelon Social and Valery the Great. To begin to read one of McCluskey’s stories is to immediately be struck by the force of her voice, a voice rich with humour, perspective and compassion. Hers is a voice so compelling that it conjures a world, and the reader becomes immersed in that world, entirely on the level with McCluskey’s hapless characters.
They’re hapless, and they’re losers, but she loves them. Their stories are also terrifically funny, even when they’re sad. They’re pure of heart, always. The stories in Hello, Sweetheart take place in Halifax amidst circles that are loosely linked. We begin at the Toy Eros sex shop, where our protagonist has finally landed a job (though she tells her mother she’s working at a bookstore: “Do they know you have three years’ university?” she asks./ “Oh yes,” I lie. “They are very impressed.”) She’s overcome a tragedy that’s not made quite clear, except that it’s resulted in a special kind of clarity: “[W]e all go through life with a great ticking time bomb of tragedy strapped to our chests,” and it’s with this awareness that she regards the curious world she now inhabits.
We all go through life with a great ticking time bomb of tragedy strapped to our chests. For most of McCluskey’s characters, the bomb’s gone off, but this does not mean relinquishing all dignity. I don’t think I’ll be able to explain the point of “Giddy Up,” the man who’s convinced that he used to be a pony, who responds to most inquiries with, “If it doesn’t bother me, then why should it bother you?,” and who manages to draw his own line in the sand and is probably more powerful and free than anyone else in the book is. There’s the man who changes his dog-walking route in order to avoid “the kind of woman who wore rubber boots whether she needed them or not.” An adult woman enrolled in undergraduate courses trying to get over being duped by a guy called Dwayne. A terrifying story that begins with an early morning wake-up and ends with a kidnapping, it all happening so fast that you’ll thumb back through the pages wondering, “How did she take me there?”
“Chez Helene” is a wonderful story in which, like so many of these, the real story is in the subtext, the space between the lines, which is that “people can believe anything they want to. And that’s ok.” (The idea that underlines so many of these stories—this is the definition of compassion.) “Jaw Breakers” is a very McCluskeyian story of a former swim champ whose career trajectory went wrong, and then he begins to lose his father in a curious way, and there goes the ground beneath his feet. Similarly sad is the life of the man falsely accused of sexually abusing children who is then left to make his own way with his shattered reputation—though McCluskey offers him the slightest reprieve from his sorrow.
“Rating Dr. Chestnut” is the story I’ve been waiting for all my life, that which is told through the structure of comments on a RateMyMD.com site. Which is not the only story in the book to engage with life online, other stories with Facebook and text messaging as embedded in the fiction as it is in real life, one even comprising two of those “Ten Things About Me” lists that were uber-memed a few years back. And Margaret, whose whole story takes place in her head as she’s playing a drinking game (alone) while watching Say Yes to the Dress. These are stories that engage so readily with the stuff of the world.
And then the final story, “Hello, Sweetheart,” a story that explains a lot, about grief and mourning, most of the text seemingly delivered from McCluskey to her father shortly after his death. He’s the subject of her second-person narration, and she tells him a story from his funeral. “It was funny, Dad, and you would have laughed. It would have been one of those stories we could have told. Over and over again.”
I finished that last story, shut the book, and clutched it close, and said, “Yes.” The whole project making sense, those stories, the sadness. Some of these stories are a bit rough around the edges, though in McCluskey’s work, form is always secondary to language. There is an exuberance to her work, an energy, that is so compelling to encounter, and there’s nothing else like it, really. She’s one of the best short story writers at work in Canada—which is saying something indeed.
October 26, 2014
In my blogging course last Monday, we were talking about blog titles, and I conceded that there was probably an expert out there who—for SEO purposes and issues of general confusion—would advise you not to call your book blog Pickle Me This. But the problem with expert advice (and why expert advice so often doesn’t work for blogs, which are characterized by their refusal to conform to expectations) is that such advice cannot take into account the forces of serendipity.
For example: You christen your blog “Pickle Me This” for no good reason in 2004, thereby enabling a delivery of actual pickles to land on your doorstep a decade later.
In 2004, I lived in Japan teaching English conversation to students with whom I usually had very little in common. This lack of commonality made our English conversation challenging. “What is your hobby?” became a conversation touchstone when all else had failed, mostly because the Japanese school system mandated that every student have a hobby. (Those students who were bad at everything usually ended up on sports teams charged with carrying equipment.) Bored housewives were also hobby connoisseurs, with interests including tea ceremonies, ikebana, and calligraphy, though more often than not, their answer to the hobbies question was “learning English,” which brought us full (albeit very small) circle, and made the minutes on our classroom clock tick by oh-so slowly.
Living in Japan does something to the brain. To this day, all my favourite music is basically assembled from karaoke playlists, I was photographing my lunch before it was cool, and I’m still inclined to squeal, “Kawaii!” when the situation warrants it. Part of becoming “Japanified” was responding the experience of living abroad and discovering how wide the world was, all the while we were cut off from the culture around us by being foreigners. We forgot how to form proper sentences, how to behave, and partook in strange pursuits to the fill the gaps that had appeared in our lives now that they were being conducted so far from home.
In 2004, I decided that I would learn how to pickle. This would be the beginning of something huge, I imagined. In Japan, anything was possible. I was picturing a sizeable cottage industry, adorable labels. They would say, “Pickle Me This,” the name of my company. One of my students—an avid pickler—wanted to support my ambitions and went as far as to give me a gift of pickling spice she’d made herself. “I want you to be a pickle success!” she told me.
Except that I was a pickling disaster. Granted, a lot was working against me. My entire kitchen was a hot plate, and I didn’t own a measuring cup. I was illiterate, so could not read food labels to know what kind of vinegar I was employing for my pickling task (if it was vinegar at all). I had no culinary skills then, and struggled with following simple recipes, whose advice, I decided, was usually just a helpful suggestion, as I slung a fistful of something or other into my pot. In Japan, we ate spaghetti sauce that came out of pouches, and I thought that was just fine. So the precision involved in pickling was well beyond my ken.
You can actually track the trajectory of my very short pickling career, which began with a blog post called “Are Pickles Supposed to Float?” and proceeded on to a post called “Dubious Pickles” the very next day, reporting that the pickles were shrivelling up in their jar. I don’t remember what happened to the pickles after that, but it is quite possible that I insisted on eating them even though they were vile and probably laced with botulism. I have a hard time admitting when my plans have gone wrong. I am a specialist in Stubborn as You Like. But I never made pickles again.
I’ve called myself a “would-be pickler” in the years since, usually in the bio on the blog that was christened Pickle Me This not long after my failed venture. This blog as been much more successful than the pickles, proving that you can’t win ‘em all, but also that just because you lose some doesn’t mean it’s all lost. I was always going to be a better blogger than a pickler anyway. Accepting being so far from perfect is probably one reason I’ve been able to do so well as a blogger too, the pickles were certainly a fundamental lesson in that respect.
One consolation of failed pickledom is that it doesn’t keep one from eating pickles. Another consolation of failed pickledom is actual pickles on the doorstep from Nathan’s Famous, which are launching in Canada and are available in the refrigerated meat cooler sections at No Frills, Loblaws, and other grocery stores. Because a blog called Pickle Me This comes out on top when PR firms are searching for Canadian blogs about pickles. Perhaps this was part of my plan all along?
So we’ve been eating pickles all weekend, revelling in the bounty. I’m a bit crazy about the sweet horseradish pickles, though it’s possible I never met a sweet pickle I didn’t like. The sour and half sour are huge and full of crunch and flavour. Iris insists on eating them too, even though she makes the most ridiculous faces while doing so, but she keeps coming back for another bite, and so do I, because they’re good pickles.
And maybe you have to have been responsible for bad pickles to do know how precious a good pickle really is.
October 24, 2014
In the Fall 2014 issue of Herizons, Deborah Ostrovsky offers a thoughtful and generous review of The M Word, as well as the single best description of motherhood I have ever encountered. In her review, she connects The M Word to “a strong Canadian tradition of public discourse on motherhood”, including legendary work by June Callwood and Marni Jackson, and the monumental motherhood anthologies, Double Lives and Between Interruptions.
She writes, “You won’t keep this book; you’ll pass it on to friends whose current vocation is to changing diapers, or to friends who want a child, or those who don’t. The M Word is vast in scope, featuring beautiful conversations I can finally share.”
(Update Oct. 27: Another nice review has appeared, this time in The Coastal Spectator, the reviewer calling the book’s ideas “diverse and challenging.” You can read it here.)
October 22, 2014
In these uncertain times (though I am unclear about which times were ever certain) with so much fear, hatred and violence in the world, what books should we turn to? Could there possibly be a book into which escape is possible, all the while the experience of reading sharpens our senses in connection to the troubled world around us?
But in fact there are three, Jo Walton’s “Small Change” series, which begins with Farthing, then Ha’Penny and Half a Crown. We devoured them on our summer vacation this year, detective novels set in an alternate history in which Britain had declared peace which Germany in 1940 and began a slippery slide into Fascism underlined by establishment powers. Such fun absolutely, and yet they’ve never been far from my mind ever since, particularly in light of government response to terror threats in the UK and in Canada lately which has seemed eerily similar to the story Walton writes in her book.
Though this similarity is most deliberate. Walton writes:
“I wrote these books during a dark time politically, when the US and the UK were invading Iraq without a Security Council resolution on a trumped up casus belli. I was brought up by my grandparents, and the defining event of their lives was WWII, it cut across them like a knife. To find a government I had voted for waging a war of aggression really rocked my expectations. If I’d been in Britain I’d have marched and protested, but I was in Canada, which kept out of that unjust war. My husband is Irish, and Ireland wasn’t doing it either. I think it was my isolation on this that went into writing these books.
I had read a lot of cosy mysteries, Tey, Sayers, Christie, Heyer, and considered the interesting fact that they were about sudden violent death and yet they were written in a way that made them safe, indeed cosy. I thought I could use this to write about fascism, and not in a closed known historical context where we’re safe and sure of the ending either.”
We live in a good world—this is one thing I am not uncertain about. And while art is so often a mirror or a window through which we understand the world, it’s so essential that sometimes we see it from a different point of view, which Walton does so brilliantly here, reframing history in a way that helps us understand and navigate the uncertainty of right now, and strive to be better than we are.