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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

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“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

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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.

March 28, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Bookstores

dark-age-aheadThis weekend is, apparently, Annex Book City’s last. I’ve not been in for awhile because it’s just not been the same, but will pop in for a last goodbye. I continue to be heartbroken, but one stumbles on. Still very much hoping for a new bookshop landing in the neighbourhood, and in the meantime, will support our other locals–Parent Books (in their new location), Little Island Comics, and Bakka Phoenix, all close by. But yes, it’s terrible. And isn’t it funny how fast one becomes accustomed to “terrible,” which is a point Jane Jacobs makes in Dark Age Ahead, which I read last week. and which, apparently, Book City did the launch for, as it was her local bookstore too, so there you go. So I am by no means living in a bookstore desert, but I have such sympathy for those people who are, though I fear that already so many have forgotten what they’re missing.

Last weekend, I was interviewed for this article by Andrea Gordon on how Book City is one of three bookstores closing in Toronto this month, along with The World’s Biggest Bookstore (which held me so in thrall as a child that I did a school project on it in grade 5. It was the most magical place I’d ever been), and The Cookbook Store, which was another favourite destination more recently, right across the road from the Toronto Reference Library. The piece is a nice look at these places which make our city special, places that are getting lost thanks to rising rents and pressure from Amazon’s discounts, not to mention longterm effects of Chapters Indigo’s predatory practices, back when they could afford such things (which has, of course, rendered Bloor West Village a bookstore desert, among many other examples).

the-bookshop-bookI am too much of an optimist to wholly give over to the dark age ahead though. Something good will come of all of this, and in the meantime, I am pleased that my thoughts on loving and losing Book City are going to be included in The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell, which will be out in the UK in October. About the book: “From the oldest bookshop in the world, to the smallest you could imagine, The Bookshop Book examines the history of books, talks to authors about their favourite places, and looks at over two hundred weirdly wonderful bookshops across six continents (sadly, we’ve yet to build a bookshop down in the South Pole). The Bookshop Book is a love letter to bookshops all around the world.” I’m very excited to be a part of it.

And for more signs of life in the indie bookshop game? Oh, do check out the blog of Parnassus Books in Nashville, which is co-owned by the remarkable Ann Patchett. So so filled with bookish goodness.

March 27, 2014

On the terror of speaking out loud

My essay in The M Word is called “Doubleness Clarifies”, and I wrote it almost two years ago during four days in July when I hid out in the rafters at the Wychwood Library while Harriet was enrolled in day camp—the first time since her birth that I’d had the luxury of a couple of hours to string together for writing. And I knew what I wanted to write about, because I’d been rehearsing the essay for years. I wrote the essay from beginning to end while listening to “Call Me Maybe” on repeat, which I don’t think you can tell from reading it, but it was essential to the creation. At the time, the book was still just an idea, and it wasn’t a sure thing that it would ever come to be. This all seems like a long time ago now, which tells you something about how long it takes to make a book. One of the most fascinating things about The M Word is the way in which its writers’ lives have changed since they wrote their essays, each piece a representation of a moment in time. That flux is the entire book’s subtext.

But it’s true that my essay had been in the works for a long time, something I desperately wanted to say, but had lacked the courage to express. Becoming a mother in 2009, as my essay demonstrates, helped me to a fuller understanding of what I wanted to write about. (See what I’m doing here? Not getting to the point. This is my point.) So I finally wrote about it, to the strains of Carly Rae. Publication theoretical, far into the future. (Hmm, is what I’m saying a lot now, maybe I didn’t think this through…)

I have practiced talking about what I’ve written about. Clues dropped here and there in blog posts (which is not “talking” per se, but it’s like talking because people are listening to what I say here.) Last spring when I was 41 weeks pregnant, Dr. Henry Morgentaler died, which gave me a meaningful occasion to finally be out with it–this was a rehearsal for the book, I knew. And the response to that post was enormous, giving me some faith that I could take my essay into the world without fear. I know I have the support of my family too, which means everything, and the contents of the essay will not be a revelation to anyone who knows me, because I’ve always been open about my experience. But this open? (Maybe I didn’t think this through…)

I write in my essay that it’s taken me a long time to say the word “abortion” out loud, not because it’s a bad word or something I’m ashamed of, but just because the word is a trigger for so many kinds of conversations that I don’t necessarily feel like having.  It was a word I was afraid to own, no matter how much I was grateful for the word and its reality in shaping my adult life.If anything, it was my reticence that I was ashamed of though, the way that it was allowing others to hijack the abortion conversation, people whose motives were to restrict and undermine my autonomy, personhood and freedom. I was grateful to the book for providing another meaningful occasion for me to write about my experience of abortion and the surprising ways in which it connects to my experience of motherhood. I was compelled to tell my story also because I know it’s echoed in the experiences of so many other women who, for their own reasons, feel more comfortable keeping quiet about the whole thing.

You know, it’s not shame that keeps us quiet, that kept me quiet for more than a decade. Yes, some women regret their abortions, but that’s only because (as I write in my essay) abortion exists on a huge spectrum of experience. For me, it was barely a decision, more a reflex, but still the smartest thing I’ve ever done. For most of us though, we keep quiet because people can be  cruel, showing a stunning lack of empathy and understanding. There are people for whom  murder seems a fair-enough response, an eye for an eye, I suppose. Who would want to open themselves up to that? (Maybe I didn’t think this through….)

So here it is: on April 15 and on many occasions thereafter, I will be reading from “Doubleness Clarifies” in rooms full of people, in front of my dad. (See why I’m thinking about not having thought it through?) The essay, or part of it, will be published online. And I know that most people who read it or hear it read will be enlightened or else say, “Yeah, that’s exactly how it was…” because I know that most people are sensible and sane, and that even if they don’t agree with the morals of the experience, that they can understand how it was for me, which is the point of the essay after all. People are also allowed to think the whole thing is a load of tosh–a writer has to give her readers permission for that.

So maybe I didn’t think this through, but it’s going to happen anyway. And it’s terrifying. Which is where I’m at now, far away from the Wychwood Library rafters. But I’m also glad it’s going to happen, that (I hope) abortion will become a word that falls off the tongue, that this story might precede me, that maybe the narrative of abortion will begin to be shifted from polarities to something more complicated, part of life, something like how it really is.

March 25, 2014

CanLit Companions: Prairie Ostrich and Jane The Fox and Me

jane-the-fox-and-meAs if Jane, The Fox, and Me needed another endorsement. Winner of a Governor-General’s Award for Illustration, included on many year-end Best Of lists, including The New York Times’. But I walked into Little Island Comics on Saturday to finally buy a copy, and when I asked for it at the counter, the other children in the store starting raving. “It’s the best book ever,” one of them told me, so if I’d ever had any doubt…

The star of this show is the illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault, which recall her gorgeous drawings from Virginia Wolf. The story, by Franny Britt and translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou, is about a young girl, Helene, who seeks solace from her tormentors within the pages of a book: Jane Eyre. And here, Arnseault’s images are lush, defined and richly coloured. Whereas, in the panels of her life, lines are rough, darkly shaded, bare-treed and dull. Helene is on the outs with girls who’d once been her friends, as is ever the way, and both the text and images capture her sense of being totally alone. The bullying is unrelenting (an amazingly, so pointedly hurtful and careless and stupid at the exact same time), Helene powerless against it, even more so when she’s made to join her classmates on a trip to a wilderness camp. Things get worse before they get better, but a curious encounter with a fox shifts everything, and then Helene makes a real friends, colour slowly returning to her world.

prairie-ostrichI read it as I was reading Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi, whose cover design is so stunning that the book does not seem so far apart from a graphic novel. (Full disclosure! Prairie Ostrich is published by Goose Lane, which also publishes The M Word.) Kobayashi’s Egg is younger than Helene–7 or 8-years-old–but just as alienated from her world. On their ostrich farm in the Alberta Badlands, Egg’s is the only Japanese family on the prairie in the 1970s, her parents’ painful pasts from WW2 refusing to stay buried. But the past has got nothing on the present, in which the family has been torn apart since elder brother Albert’s death under mysterious circumstances a few months before. Her father has taken to sleeping in the barn, her mother seeking solace in booze, and her sister Kathy’s close friendship with another girl is raising eyebrows in their small town. Egg doesn’t understand the disarray she’s witnessing and, like Helene, takes solace in books, though she prefers the dictionary and books of facts over fiction, because fiction is so slippery. She likes the illusion of order which the dictionary offers to the world, and she likes other illusions too, like the alternative ending to The Diary of Anne Frank, which her sister reads to her, in which Anne survives and travels to a new life in America.

Such a young protagonist in an adult novel is a tricky thing, which Kobayashi succeeds at by making Egg quite precocious (though she is very much the opposite in other essential ways, much to her social detriment). Egg is also provided with abundant material to filter through her point of view, small towns being good for such things. There were a few moments in which as a reader, I could glimpse the author above the story, busily pulling on strings, but in general, I was taken with this story, with its pop culture allusions and as a testament to how we bury ourselves in books (and escape recess by hiding in the library—who hasn’t been there?).

Both Prairie Ostrich and Jane, the Fox and Me are books whose appeal extends between age groups, and which offer thoughtful, emphatic perspectives on everybody’s favourite buzzword, bullying. They’re books about the books that save us, about the fictional worlds we so need when we’re young in which we’re free to dream ourselves.

March 25, 2014

How Little Lori Visited Times Square

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The best thing about the Lillian H. Smith Library is that its collection was born out of the Toronto Library’s Boys and Girls House, which opened in 1923, and therefore a trip through the stacks reveals all kinds of vintage gems. Our favourite fruit of Saturday’s visit is How Little Lori Visited Times Square by Amos Vogel and illustrated my Maurice Sendak (which I came across whilst browsing for Viorst).

It’s a book with a warning label: “This is a very funny book and should not be read while drinking orange juice, or you will spill it!” 

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This is the only picture book by Vogel, who was known for his work in cinema and as author of the book, Film as a Subversive Art. Maurice Sendak is, of course, Maurice Sendak. And oh, this book is weird and terrific.

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It’s about a little boy called Lori whose bedroom decor suggests a strong affinity for vehicles of all kinds. He decides one day to go to Times Square, but every route he takes brings him to somewhere different. This is a frustrating process for him–a helicopter delivers him to Idlewild Airport; the elevates subway to his Uncle’s house in Queens. The city in the background is a crowded place, populated by curious characters and decorated with billboards and signs whose words add a marvellous subtext and might be some kind of comment on consumerism but I can’t quite decide which. Potato Chip stores and Peanut butter stores, signs exclaiming, “Buy Now!”, and an ad on the side of the bus: “Don’t walk on the pigeons.”

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He ends up crying on the 25th floor of Macy’s (after a trip up the elevator), but then is rescued by a slow-talking turtle who offers Lori a ride on his back. Lori agrees and off they go. But, um, that was four months ago.

“And nobody has heard from them since.”

The warning label is not unjustified then.

Another best thing? The book has been brought back into print where it remains. Because it’s totally totally brilliant.

March 23, 2014

The Age by Nancy Lee

the-ageMy review of The Age by Nancy Lee appeared in The Globe and Mail this weekend:

It seems fitting, if sinister, to suggest that something in the air could be responsible for a strange tension emanating lately from the nation’s western edge. The Age – the long-awaited first novel by Nancy Lee, who won acclaim with the short-story collection Dead Girls– joins terrific recent fiction by Zsuzsi Gartner and Caroline Adderson to form a subgenre of Vancouver literature that puts the “domestic” in domestic terrorism. These works explore female characters’ relationships to extremism to complicate notions of home and family.

Lee’s title refers to two pivotal ages, her plot born of their intersection. The first is the age in which her story takes place, 1984, which, thanks to Orwell, was always going to be a storied year, even if Soviet warships hadn’t been gathering in the Atlantic with the Doomsday Clock ticking close to midnight. It would be a peculiar time in which – and here’s the second title reference – to come of age, seemingly on the brink of annihilation, as is the case for Gerry, Lee’s misfit protagonist.

Read the whole thing here.

March 22, 2014

The M Word is here!

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The M Word arrived on my doorstep yesterday morning, a whole box of beautiful books. It’s all a bit overwhelming and underwhelming at the very same time, and anyone who has ever published a book probably knows exactly what I’m talking about. Though I am lucky to have the support of 24 other writers who are as excited about this book as I am, and so grateful that they’ve lent not only their talents, but their enthusiasm. I’m grateful too for the enthusiasm of Emily Schultz, Ann Douglas and Miranda Hill, who were kind enough to read the book and offer endorsements. And finally,  I’m grateful for friends and family who have been looking forward to this book for a while now. If you’d like to know how to best support The M Word, I’m happy to refer you to Carrie Snyder’s Practical Guide to Selling a Book. You should be able to get the book in your hands in the next few weeks, and I do hope you really enjoy it.

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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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