July 22, 2014
Breaking my holiday blogging fast to report on three reviews which have made my week. The first is from Sheree Fitch, who posted an extended version of her review from the Telegraph-Journal on her blog. She writes, “Think of reading this book as experiencing the difference between moderate and severe contractions in the muscles around your heart. Uncomfortable, yes, but also necessary if we ever want more than the icing on a Mother’s Day cake that too glibly frosts over the realities of our lives connected to the“M word.” So grateful for this, particularly as Sheree is a writer I admire so much.
I also admire JC Sutcliffe, who is equal parts brilliant and lovely, and so I was overjoyed to find she’d written about The M Word on her excellent blog, Slightly Bookist. She writes, “Motherhood–many different, dark, unspoken aspects of it–is no fairytale even when it does have a happy ending. Ambivalence climbs the intertwined helical strands of maternal feeling and artistic ambition like a voracious vine, clinging, powerful. Being a mother heightens emotional extremes (despair to joy and back again dozens of times a day) while muting actual life extremes (possibility of adventure, spontaneity, freedom from responsibility).”
And then a fantastic story about how small is the world. Winnipeg writer Dora Dueck also wrote about The M Word on her blog: ” I longed to put my hand through the page with a pat and say, It gets better. Usually it does, I think. But such a typically maternal gesture, isn’t it? Coming from the stage I’m in now, which is post-Mother in a way, easier on every level but with some terrific adults in my life who happen to be my children. Me still, and again, in Heidi Reimer’s words, “gobsmacked and humbled” by their existence.”
And it’s funny, because while Dora Dueck is the one writer of the three I’ve never met, unbeknownst to her, we’re connected after all. Her granddaughter is Harriet’s playschoolmate, and I’ve spent countless hours over the past two years hanging out in the park with her and her mom, who told me all about her mother-in-law and her books. Which made me all the more pleased by her generous reading and the review.
I continue to feel so lucky at how kindly the book has been received by the world, and gratified too that we were so right that there was such be a place for it.
July 18, 2014
This week my website’s server crashed for 3 days, I spent every evening working for 3 hours, my work-in-progress hit 20,000 words, and Iris learned to climb up the slide. Next week, I need to get ready for our holiday, there is no day camp, and I have two deadlines. And so I am calling early vacation on Pickle Me This, though I will probably post a photo of my vacation book stack in the coming days. Stay tuned for that, and otherwise, I will see you in August!
July 16, 2014
The latest in our Pies of Summer file is cherry, made with a wholewheat oatmeal crust because I’d run out of all-purpose flour. And it was a pretty good crust. I think I’d make it again.
July 14, 2014
I know that comics lovers are a territorial lot, so I’ll state that I’m in no way impinging upon their authority, but rather documenting my own discovery of passion for the form. I’m a comics newbie (years of Archie-reading aside) but panel by panel, I’m falling in love. We benefit greatly from having Little Island Comics around the corner from our house, but there is also a fine selection of comics available through the library. And as Harriet gets bigger and we don’t read together quite as often as we once did, sharing comics has been a terrific way for us to experience books together.
Yotsuba: This series was a discovery by my friend, Rebecca Rosenblum, via the five year old in her life. She thought that Harriet and I would enjoy the books too, and she was completely right. These books are a manga series about a little girl called Yotsuba (whose name translates as “Four Leaf Clover), a quirky five year old with a unique way of seeing the world. Yotsuba has a curious if vague background–her adoptive father claims she is an orphan whom he picked up while travelling abroad. The series begins with her and her father settling into a new home in Japan, meeting their neighbours and discovering their new community. Yotsuba is more naive than most five year olds, resulting in amusing misunderstandings, and she is also just like five year olds everywhere in her emotional range and strong passions. She’s funny, gutsy and sweet as she takes part in everyday adventures. Her stories also give North American readers insight into children growing up in a culture different from theirs own.
The Wonderful World of Lisa Simpson: I wrote about this book already after we’d borrowed it from the library, and then we bought our own copy. I think Lisa Simpson is a great character, and this comic is a good introduction to her. In the first story, she imagines herself as ruler of an ancient utopia, but best intentions go awry. In the second story, Lisa signs up Santa’s Little Helper for a dog show, and realizes that neither of them are really the competitive type. And then the final story, in which Lisa opens up her own Little Free Library on the Simpson’s front lawn, but all those books are wasted on the philistines in her midst. I appreciate this collections because each story is written and illustrated by women, which I understand is pretty rare in comics, and also because each artist approaches the images in a slightly different way, giving us new ways to see these characters which have become so familiar. And because it’s a comic about a lending library… the BEST!
The Incredibles: Secrets and Lies: I dislike cartoons and children’s movies, but The Incredibles is the exception that that rule. I’ve seen the movie many times and spent every more time discussing its plot lines and gender politics. Plus, it is funny, and I love that Harriet is a fan of Violet–there are worse role models. So we were happy to borrow The Incredibles: Secrets and Lies from the library. It’s a great story in which mother Helen gets a starring role, and then I started channelling Holly Hunter when I read her parts, which might have been irritating to listen to, but was exhilarating to experience. I do appreciate these characters, which so deftly meld my fascination with domestic fiction to Harriet’s with super heroes. There are other books in this series, and I look forward to reading them soon.
Wonder Woman: Challenge of the Gods: Wonder Woman was where our family’s comics love began. At Little Island Comics, they sell old comics for a dollar so we started reading Woman Woman issues randomly. Harriet adores them, though I’m not sure how much she understands, and the story lines are so interesting, involving elements of Greek mythology and Wonder Woman’s whole fascinating origin story. These are a bit dangerous though for two reasons: first, that Iris likes to tear the pages, whose flimsiness suits such an activity, and also that some of the story lines are a bit too adult—I kind of had to tiptoe around the Zeus/Wonder Woman rape plot line, but Harriet didn’t notice. It didn’t bother me enough to stop reading them though, mostly because I want to see what happens next. Which I have a feeling was what the series’ writer had precisely intended.
July 9, 2014
Summer is proceeding apace, and we’re all enjoying ourselves. Plus, Stuart met Dan Aykroyd today, so life has officially reached its zenith. I have embarked upon a marathon writing project that requires a commitment of 1000 words a day, which is a lot considering I have only the window of Iris’s nap time for working, and then evenings (because who has ever heard of leisure?), plus have actual jobs that require me to deliver (and hooray for that!). Harriet is at Art Camp this week in the afternoons, the only 5 year old in a group of mainly 12 year olds, so she is basically their pet. Yesterday, she sculpted a stegosaurus. It is a nice break for her from watching Frozen every day between 1:00 and 3:00 while Iris sleeps. On Sunday, we all went to Christie Pits to watch A League of Their Own outside at sunset (which, you will note, is 2 hours past bedtime), and even though everyone else there was wearing rompers, smoking pot and had barely been born when the movie came out, it was an excellent experience. Even Iris stayed awake. Until midnight. It was amazing, but then the next day we were all so tired that I remembered why we weren’t cool spontaneous parents who do things like watch movies in the park with hipsters, but at least we did it once, and now I know. I’ve also managed to get away with not visiting a playground yet during the week, which is fantastic, because Iris is at the worst age to take to such places. All my attempts to sit on a bench and read a book come to naught, which is terrible. Maybe next year? I had forgotten that I hated parks, unless I’d gone with a friend. And speaking of reading books, I’m reading Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule now. The other night I started 4 books and abandoned every one. I am having a problem with patience. Then there was the matter of the books themselves.
July 6, 2014
I’ve been an admirer of Stephany Aulenback for at least a decade, since she was Maud Newton‘s Friday blogger and I would read her posts from my closet-sized apartment in Japan, loving the places her links pointed me to, dreaming of my faraway home back in Canada and the possibility that someday I might be a book blogger too. She started her own blog at Crooked House a few years later, which I always enjoyed, in particular her links about babies and motherhood, her thoughtfulness and curiosity about topics most other places on the internet (and elsewhere) reduce to consumerism and polarization. I love that for her, motherhood and literature have always been connected (or maybe it’s just that to read is to be alive, and mothering is something you can do concurrently).
Her second child was born a few weeks after my first, and I have appreciated her frank, funny and creative posts on living with children. Just off the top of my head, the list of wonderful things her blog has pointed me to include Sara O’Leary’s books, Christina Hardyment’s Dream Babies, and my first reading of Harriet the Spy (for which I named my firstborn—seriously, where would I be without Crooked House?). I have also appreciated her writing at places like McSweeneys, in particular, “Words That Would Make Nice Names for Babies, If It Weren’t For Their Unsuitable Meanings”. (I myself have always been partial to Tazer and Latrine.)
So of course, I have been looking forward to the publication of her first book, If I Wrote A Book About You, illustrated by Denise Holmes and published by the splendid Simply Read Books. When I saw an image of the book’s cover a few months ago, I suspected I would not be disappointed, and I wasn’t. Holmes’ illustrations are simply and stylish with a touch of the old-fashioned about them (blushing cheeks), complemented by the stripes and floral prints that offset them.
The book is a love letter from parent to child, a sweet and whimsical expression of affection. “If I wrote a book about you,” the story begins, “and how wonderful you are, I would write it everywhere.” Some of the expressions are more straightforward than others—”I would write that you are perfect in the sand on the beach,” the illustration showing her doing just that. Or “I would write that you are amazing with the telephone wires, and that you are fascinating with the yellow lines that run down the middle of the road,” this page featuring my favourite spread from the book, a homey streetscape (featuring a library!). She ends up writing with noodles, toys on the floor, raindrops on the window, and rays from the sun.
Aulenback’s playfulness with language is evident here, in that with beads on a bracelet, she writes, “charming”, and that her grammar bends in surprising ways that keep the ear attuned–”you are delicious with the noodles in your soup.” I also love the idea that one could write anything with cracker crumbs and toys on the floor, and if this were really the case, I’d be Karl Ove Knausgaard.
For me, the book is testament to the exuberance of love and the creative inspiration that parenthood can bring, though it’s a complicated inspiration. It’s significant, I think, that the book’s title is hypothetical after all. While motherhood might brings with it a whole new brilliant view upon the world, this doesn’t necessary entail sufficient energy or time with which that vision can be captured for all of eternity. (Or maybe it does? Karl Ove apparently has four children, though as yet, he hasn’t written a book about them.)
If I Wrote a Book About You is a book about the curious places in which we writing our stories on the world, about the power of words, a vocabulary lesson, an exercise in imagination, a record of lovely quotidian things, and the ridiculous extent of parental love. You can also take any of the adjectives that appear within the story–charming, beautiful, clever, precious and sweet—and, like magic, they seem to apply to the book that contains them.
July 3, 2014
Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game was on my foundational texts, one of the few books from my YA days that I still keep on my shelves. So it was a lovely surprise to discover her books in the picture book section once I started perusing the library with Harriet. Turns out that Raskin was a notable book designer and illustrator, in addition to being a writer. (She designed the first edition jacket for A Wrinkle in Time.) Her picture books are very visual, kind of psychedelic, whimsical and as tricky as The Westing Game. And this week we enjoyed reading Spectacles.
It is possibly true that we like Spectacles because it features a little girl called Iris. Who didn’t always have glasses, her poor eyesight having previously gotten her into a whole lot of trouble and causing misunderstandings.
For example, what she’d assumed to be a chestnut mare in the parlour (but of course!)…
…turns out to be her babysitter.
These visual tricks constitute most of the book, and does include a racist image of an Native American stereotype. Which is the point at which I point out to Harriet what racism and stereotypes are, and why I’m not comfortable with that page, so all is not lost, and we move on to chestnut mares.
At the end of the story, it all becomes clear, and Iris has a wide variety of frames to choose from on her visit to the opticians. “Would you like to look younger or older, sweeter or smarter, like a scholar or a movie star?”
It is unfortunate that Raskin’s picture books are out of print and that most of them are unavailable in our public library system (though they are kept in the archives of the Osborne Collection for Children’s Literature). Definitely books worth keeping an eye out for when cruising garage sales or second-hand bookshops.
*And by the way, I’m excited to welcome back the Best of the Library Haul feature, now that school is out and we once again have time for regular library visits. I’ve missed them. This is going to be fun.
July 2, 2014
Things are busy around here with the usual summer things (swimming pools, barbecues, celebrating Canada Day at Queen’s Park, not sleeping at night, lazy days, beer and chicken wings with my husband on a rooftop patio) and with a top-secret project that is going to keep things quieter on the blog front this summer. Which is as it should be–you’re all out gallivanting anyway. But I did want to share two amazing things I’ve been up to lately in celebration of two really excellent books.
The first is All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, which I was lucky enough to review for Canadian Notes and Queries 90, their summer issue. It’s out now. The review was a pleasure to write, to be working with material that was just so good. The book is the most hilarious heartbreak I’ve ever experienced. A teaser of my review:
“While markedly different in style and tone, All My Puny Sorrows reads as an interesting companion to Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir, Wave, another book about grief and trauma, in which Deraniyagala recounts the loss of her family in the 2006 Boxing Day tsunami. Both books are haunted by narrators whose voices are measured and understated, existing to evoke the dead and the past rather than to illuminate the present, partly because the narrator in the present is a hollow shell of grief. And that grief itself remains a quiet presence in the text, until it doesn’t, bursting onto the page with a torrent of rage. Interestingly, both narrators enact their rage by making obnoxious phone calls, describing themselves as “haunting” the calls’ recipients on whom they (inappropriately, but who can blame them for that?) lay blame for their tragedies.
Unlike Wave, however, and just like everything Toews has ever written, All My Puny Sorrows is also terrifically funny. The young version of Elf is a wonderful character, with her dramatic flares and karate-chop gestures. The most hilarious scene in the book takes place at a funeral (of course) when a young child steps up and begins to eat the ashes of the deceased. Elf and Yolandi’s mother emerges as the real hero of this story, a woman of unlimited faith and optimism (and who, in shock after her daughter’s death, answers every utterance with, “Ain’t that the truth”). And this is Yolandi’s revelation as well, that all this grief has not been put upon her alone, and that her mother, in her obsession with Scrabble games and detective novels, is trying to decode the mystery of things and put words together so they mean something, just as Yolandi herself is.”
I am also very pleased with my interview with Saskatchewan Metis writer Lisa Bird-Wilson about her short story collection, Just Pretending. I read the book in early May and found it incredibly affecting. Bird-Wilson’s answers to my questions were thoughtful, challenging, provocative and profound–just as her book is. And a taste of that?
“Also, don’t you think there’s something a bit unfair about criticism that turns on the fact that stories made the critic feel bad? It’s unfortunate, but I’ve really noticed that audiences want you to read things that are funny—boy, they love that kind of thing. I find myself sometimes trying to excise funny bits from my stories and use them for readings—shame on me for bowing to the pressure but we all want to be liked, don’t we? I guess it’s human nature—we want to be able to laugh together—but in order to laugh together we also have to cry together sometimes. And sometimes we just laugh our way through the pain because there’s nothing else you can do.”
Reading the whole thing here.
June 29, 2014
The cover doesn’t lie—Marissa Stapley’s Mating for Life is the perfect novel for dockside, for reading on the beach. By which I mean it adheres to a certain formula. The ends all tie up into perfect solutions, tragedies averted. By which I also mean that it’s a pleasure to read, this novel about Helen Sear, a woman who is part Joni Mitchell, part Gloria Steinem, a former folk singer whose relationships with men throughout her life had been like the relationships fish have with bicycles, except with a lot more contact. Contact enough for her to have had three daughters with three different men, these daughters now grown and trying to reconcile their complicated family legacy. They’ve each responded differently to their mother’s example, creating their own selves from those parts of her they’d embraced or rejected. Or at least had attempted to reject—it will turn out that they’re each more like their mother than they’d previously understood, and unlike her too in ways all their own.
The novel begins at Helen’s summer cottage north of Toronto, where Liane (the youngest) is spending a week alone trying to finish her dissertation and to sort out her feelings toward her fiancé. And it was here where I began to notice something beyond a formula at work, and to be delighted by the unabashed bookishness of the narrative–a perfect novel for dockside that features people who are reading on docks. And reading specifically too–Liane notices a man at a neighbouring cottage reading at the end of his dock, something with an orange spin. She swims close enough to see that it’s Junkie by William Burroughs and she’s disappointed, plus a but disturbed. Later, rifling through the cottage library, she turns up a copy of The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff, and begins to read its wonderful first sentence…
Meanwhile, the oldest daughter, Fiona, is starting to lose it after more than a decade of trying to attain domestic perfection, trying to prove to the world that she’s nothing like her mother at all. When her husband reveals a secret from his past, the veneer of her life is cracked, and she’s not sure she can put the pieces back together. Living not far away is the middle sister, Ilsa, whose attempts to emulate her older sister’s are beginning to prove an abject failure. She’s got two small kids, a husband who ignores her, and her once-successful career as a painter is as stalled as her marriage. She starts to wonder if the spark she’s missing might be found in an affair with a former teacher, and she’s far too aware of what she’s doing when things finally cross the line.
Unbeknownst to her daughters, Helen has also embarked upon a complicated domestic arrangement. She has fallen in love with a good man who wants to marry her, which might sound uncomplicated to most women, but most women haven’t spent decades solidifying a public reputation for independent womanhood. She’s not sure whether her new feelings mark an evolution or compromise of her principles.
The chapters alternate between the points of view of Helen and her daughters, as well as those of other women–the estranged wife of the man Liane watches reading on his dock, their eldest daughter, the woman whose just the latest to shack up with the owner of the local marina, a man whose virility is legend (which she hopes might give her barren womb the boost it needs to finally make the baby she’s been longing for). Each chapter is preceded by a short paragraph on the mating habits of various wild animals, the habits reflected in the behaviour of the characters who will appear. These allusions serve to further the questions posed by the narrative about human relationships and whether their patterns are learned by nature or nurture. But they also bring the animals themselves into the story in a really interesting way that calls to mind Alissa York’s Fauna, both in the rural cottage landscape and in the city settings too.
As one would expect from a novel about a folk singer, Mating for Life is as full of musical references as it is literary ones. And speaking of the literary references, this is the only book I’ve ever read in which a major plot point hinges on a copy of the literary magazine The Malahat Review. It terms of its allusions and also its sense of place, the novel seems compellingly charged with the world in a way that is a pleasure to encounter.
The book is not without its problems—dialogue can be stilted and expository, I could have done without the thoughts in italics that underlined what Stapley’s impressive prose was already making quite clear. Sometimes the adherence to formula broke a spell, and maybe I am being nitpicky, but I spent a lot of time figuring out how the marina owner, who had grown children, could have only read one book in his life “for school” and had that book be Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, which was published in 1999. Maybe he’d gone back and got his high school equivalency, I wondered? (A possibility!). But do you know what’s so wonderful? The reference to No Great Mischief wasn’t casually made, thrown down for solid literary cred, but for its brilliant last line which I won’t reveal here for spoiler reasons, but which ties in so perfectly to everything that Mating for Life is all about. Formulaic or not, Stapley’s narrative was constructed with such care.
There are also truly splendid bits of prose. A standout line for me was, “The lake was like a garage-sale mirror, smooth but mottled.” It’s an image that has lingered in my mind.
Mating for Life is the type of summer book that I’d pass on to my mother and my sister, the way we did with Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters years ago. It’s the kind of summer book I don’t encounter so much anymore, me with my head jammed far up my literary ass and therefore unable to soak of summer books for summer books’ sake the way I once could. Because summer book or not, I need my books to be good. I need lines of prose to stick in my head and characters with three dimensions, and for the most part, Stapley delivers, showing the messy, complicated, infinite, wonderful and never-boring threads of women’s lives.
June 27, 2014