June 27, 2014
June 26, 2014
I had the pleasure of reviewing Peach Girl by Raymond Nakamura and Rebecca Bender for Quill & Quire. It’s a story about a feisty girl that depicts the gorgeous countryside of Japan, a country that was once my home. I definitely recommend it.
“In his engaging debut, author Raymond Nakamura puts a feminist bent on the Japanese folk tale Momotaro (Peach Boy).
In Nakamura’s version, a young girl emerges from a giant peach discovered on the doorstep of an elderly couple (who are, notably, a farmer and her husband). Momoko, which translates as “Peach Girl,” is a feisty creature determined to make the world a better place, a mission that involves ridding it of a child-eating ogre. Gently shrugging off her adoptive parents’ concerns for her safety, Momoko embarks on her quest with peach-pit armour for protection, plus a bundle of peach dumplings to eat on the way.”
You can read the whole review here.
June 26, 2014
With Status Update (which was nominated for the 2014 Pat Lowther Award), Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang employs a clever device both for the purposes of her own literary inspiration and to provide her reader with a gateway to the collection. Tsiang used status updates by her Facebook friends as writing prompts for each poem, sometimes adhering to the narrative implied in the update, other times using the words or ideas therein as imaginative points of departure, Tsiang embodying the voice of the status updater in some poems and using the material of her own life in others, every time showing that social media conversation is worthy of literary concern, that Facebook statuses are just another example of the art which can be located in the corners of ordinary life.
I found this conceit really useful. A challenge I’ve encountered in reading poetry is how to grasp a collection without a theme or overarching narrative, and while the poems in Status Update are wildly disparate in approach and tone, their connections are implicit and results in compelling readability. The original status updates, which are included with each poem, also offer points of familiarity and access–many of these are memes I’ve encountered on my own Facebook feed, I recognize the names of the updaters too, who range from prominent Canadian literary figures to a boy I was in a play with in grade 8. (Tsiang and I grew up in the same town, and probably have a few Facebook friends in common. Further disclosure: she was also one of the writers in The M Word, and her essays refers to this collection, to the complicated considerations she must make in writing about and being inspired by her daughter.)
The poems themselves? They’re rarely what you would expect from the figments that inspired them. The final poem stems from a question about whether the world of Facebook can possibly be as sunny and wondrous as status updates and vacation photos would suggest, and Tsiang concludes her resulting poem with the disturbing and wonderful, “Unfold the picnic basket, / and set out the watermelon. / The adults are planning murder-suicide/ and the children are drowning in the lake.” Some poems are glosas, such as one inspired by an update by Carolyn Smart, “thinking of Bronwen Wallace and the 21 years gone by.” which is followed by four lines from Wallace’s “Coming Through”, and Tsiang’s resulting piece, which concludes with, “Lessons you have taught me by example:/ there are some people/ you could have trusted your life to/ and their death displaces you.” What a marvellous knot of literary homage–I love this.
I’m moving through the collection backwards (and note: there is an index at the end of authors of the updates that inspired each poem–I love this too) and picking out my favourites from this book which I read in order at the time. “Dave Hickey wonders if his tv misses him”, which is written in the voice of the television, each stanza imploring, “Look.” Particularly striking: “Look: the sun will kill you. So will/ fish, plastics and cell phones. I will tell you/ the cause of SIDS at five o’clock. Don’t/ put your baby down before that.”
And incredible poem is “Break Into Blossom”, which is inspired by a line from the poem “Blessing” by James Wright, in which Tsiang’s narrator contemplates the enormity of the love and loss implied by being a parent: “When she was born, the colours shifted in her eyes:/ dust to earth, as if she were becoming more solid/ within my gaze. How carelessly I held her,/ like the earth shouldering the skies./ Suddenly I realize/ all the thousands of ways I will lose/ her, and I am overcome, as by a death/ with her still sitting there, singing quietly/ to her stuffed monkey. The world is astonishing/ in this small room….”
There is lots of humour too, as well as poignance. One update inspires Tsiang to write a rejection letter to herself: “Dear Sarah, While we read your manuscript with interest, it doesn’t fit with our publishing mandate. Maybe if it had more tomatoes, ripening on the vine…” Or another poem (perhaps not funny, depending on your point of view), which begins, “The dog knows when you lie…”
Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang is a writer doing remarkable things. She’s author of some wonderful picture books (including A Flock of Shoes), non-fiction kids’ books, YA books, and editor of an anthology of Susans. (I also loved her previous collection, Sweet Devilry.) With Status Update, she shows that she’s got even more tricks in her back pocket, but also such a talent for turning words into vivid moments, and a refreshing viewpoint on the world.
June 25, 2014
It’s all fine and good to want to give your kids a ’70s summer, but I’m most excited about a date I’ve got scheduled tomorrow that’s more 1950s’ housewife—a martini madness afternoon to celebrate school’s out at the home of the incomparable Nathalie Foy. (“Is this a drop-off party?” asked Harriet, who has anxiety about such things. “No,” I told her. “It’s a grown-ups party. But the kids are allowed to stay.”) Seemed like a good occasion to finally use my 1960 Better Homes and Gardens Dessert Cook Book (which I found on on a curb on Major Street). It’s the most incredible cook book, and with the kind of recipes that alienated 1950s’ housewives from their labour, but provided her with ample time to smoke in and conjure Betty Friedan. These are the recipes the grocery store baked, and there is something to it. I had a busy day today, and wouldn’t have had time to make anything that took more than 10 minutes. I selected the ABC Dessert Salad (they actually called it a salad!) whose ingredients are displayed above. It’s extraordinary! I thought I’d fouled the whole thing up when the whip cream melted all over the rainbow mini marshmallows (because the just-made jello was still hot) but I think it was part of the process. The jello has since set (and before you point it out, it’s FRESH pineapple that won’t set in jello. Canned seems to do just fine) and I had a taste of my salad, and it tasted just like something a Great Aunt would have made. Harriet thinks it sounds delicious.
So we’re being eased into the end of school. Harriet’s playschool finished yesterday, and she’s in morning kindergarten until the end of the week. We had our playschool picnic today, which brought back memories of last year’s, Iris just 3 weeks old and the effort it took for me to sit on the ground. This year, she crawled through dirt and became more filthy than she’s ever been, so the children had a bath as soon as they got home. I think they’re going to be getting up to a lot of that this summer.
On the other end of the food spectrum, we hit the Farmer’s Market this evening. I do so love Harriet at age 5, who is so pleasant to go places with, and Iris is still too little to be completely annoying. And so we go to the market and Harriet says, “Oh, oh, Mommy! The wine seller is here!” and she’s happy because she knows I’m happy (and I’m even happier because this week’s wine seller has a delicious bottle of white wine for $13). And then we get cheese from Monforte Dairy, and strawberries, and raspberries, and garlic scapes, and fresh mint, and turkey sausage, and spinach, and golden beets. The market is beginning to explode with delicious things, and it’s so exciting, the season’s bounty marking its trajectory on our dinner plates. The idea of being home with 2 kids all summer is mildly terrifying, but when I think of it all in terms of tomatoes, corn, and peaches to come, I start to salivate. We will probably be okay.
There will be day camps here and there, and lots of TV. There will be ROM visits, shady trees in the playground, trips to the art gallery, filling up the pool in the backyard, scooter-riding, ice cream drips, library visits, lazy mornings, and lots of freezies. Iris’s naps make our days less wide-open than is ideal, but it also means we all get to siesta, and think that’s a fine thing. (It’s also going to be how I manage to combine my work with childcare. Fingers crossed for this.) There will be the hours of 3:30 to 5:30 to pass, which have been scientifically proven to be the longest 120 minutes in the universe (and I had spent them this spring in the park hanging out with my co-workers. I am going to miss this.) But I am going to enjoy the privilege of a summer with my kids.
We are going to get new freckles. We are going to have fun
June 24, 2014
Look what I got! Happy Birthday to me, indeed. I also received a new string of bunting, which means we may have reached Peak Bunting in our apartment. An ideal state, as far as I’m concerned.
June 23, 2014
“I had an abortion.” This is not a confession, but instead is the phrase with which my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies” (which was published in The M Word and online this spring) has been received by readers, more than any other, or at least it seems as such from my point of view. And these readers are not confessing either, but rather are stating a fact of their lives, a fact they seem eager to share. Like me, I suppose they’ve spent a long time feeling as though abortion stories were not to be shared, and they were grateful finally to have an excuse to talk about this fact of their lives, a fact which has been perhaps sad, complicated, maybe neither, but undeniably important.
It’s not shame that keeps women from talking about their abortions, but rather fear of seeming impolite. It’s funny that in a society in which 1/3 of adult women have had abortions and most people understand the procedure to be a necessary part of women’s health, that we kowtow to the sensibility of a minority whose vocal stance allows them to set the tone on the issue. That abortion is unseemly, dead babies, something that marks us, something which we have to hide at all costs.
All costs? The huge cost of hiding our abortion stories, of course, is that the vocal minority gets to tell us everything we know about abortions, much of which is wrong. (Increased breast cancer risks, post traumatic symptoms and regret, photos of aforementioned dead babies.) They get to influence the people who make the legislation, because the rest of us are too polite to speak up. They get to tell us everything we know about the women who have abortions too, which is that there is a type of woman this happens to and that her experiences are uniform.
With the new book, One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories, edited by Kathryn Palmateer and Martha Solomon, with a foreword by Judy Rebick, we learn that everything they told us about abortions, and the women who have them, is wrong. In striking portraits—photographs accompanied by short first-person essays—we learn that women who have had abortions are women of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. We learn than many of them are mothers. Others never wanted to be mothers, and it’s that certainty that made the decision to have an abortion quite an easy one to make. Some women look back on their abortions with mixed emotions, or sadness, grief or relief. And most of them look back and are grateful that the choice was theirs to make.
As I wrote in my essay in The M Word, reproductive freedom remains a revolutionary thing for a woman to get away with. Not because we don’t get away with it, but because when we do, we don’t talk about it. Which leaves a woman contemplating abortion or who’s had an abortion feeling that she’s so alone, that no one has ever been where she’s going and come out fine on the other side. And so that’s why a book like One Kind Word is so hugely important, representative of the real experiences of so many women. Experience as depicted by those who’ve lived it rather than those for whom abortion is an abstract moral issue—this is so significant. The book is also important because it creates a space where women who’ve had abortions can see themselves reflected, and the book provides an occasion for women to speak up and say, “This is my story too.”
One Kind Word was an online portrait gallery before it was a book, the project gaining huge momentum and inspiring so many women to be a part of it. (It also has a precedent with Jennifer Baumgardner’s Abortion and Life.) Many participants note that they felt as though they had an obligation to speak up in order to counter the abortion rhetoric which has been hijacked by patriarchal interests, to speak up for those countless other women who did not yet have the courage to represent.
This was not a book that told me anything I didn’t know already, instead confirming the fact that I exist. Which is not meant to be an honourable purpose for a book, literarily speaking, though anyone who’s ever told you this has probably been a man who sees his existence confirmed in his reflection in most everything he ever encounters.
The book’s editors write of their intention to have a copy of One Kind Word in every clinic waiting room across the country, and while this is a very good idea, I’d like to have it gracing coffee tables too. First, because it’s a book of beautiful images, good for flipping through, but also because it places our abortion stories right where they belong—firmly ensconced in the domestic ordinary of our various and remarkable lives.
June 22, 2014
I make a point of reading everything Elizabeth Renzetti writes, her Globe and Mail column one of my Saturday morning go-to’s. So I was always going to read Based On a True Story, her first novel, which Renzetti describes as “an alcohol-soaked comedy of failure and revenge”. I was thinking Kate Christensen’s In the Drink, Lucky Jim, and “Absolutely Fabulous meets The Devil Wears Prada,“as its back cover tells us, a blazing pink cover with lips, a lurid green type. The green is referential, the same lurid green as the book in the book, a book also called Based on a True Story, which is a surprise bestselling memoir was washed-up soap star and notorious drunk, Augusta Price. I was thinking also that Renzetti’s novel would be a send-up of tabloid culture and the current state of journalism (especially post phone-hacking scandal) in the style of Annalena McAfee’s 2011 novel The Spoiler, which had a similar set-up, but Renzetti has her tabloid journalist (young Frances in her cardigan) sacked not far into the story (which I suppose is a reflection on the current state of journalism in itself), so the narrative turned into something different. Something more like another novel about a woman called Augusta, Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, mainly in that there are many many madcap shenanigans.
After far too many silly novels trying oh so hard to be smart, it was really refreshing to discover a smart novel that wasn’t afraid or ashamed to be silly.
The writing is as sharp and skilful as you would expect if you’d ever read a Renzetti column, with snappy dialogue and perfect cultural references. Augusta Pierce is a fantastic character, and another notable literary bolter, her complete lack of maternal instinct and similar lack of compunction for such a lack refreshing to encounter. Her self-destructive tendencies too—such a smooth slide down the spiral. And she’s got charisma, which explains her hangers-on—old friend and saviour Alma Partridge, one-time paramour Kenneth Deller (who now makes his living as “Mr. Romance,” host of a radio call-in show for the lovelorn) and pines for her across the world, and Frances the sacked journalist who agrees to ghost-write Augusta’s next book, but not before accompanying her on a journey to California to stop Kenneth Deller from writing his tell-all book first.
Augusta goes to great lengths to assert that her own book is just a version of the truth, the version she chose to share, though the excerpts from it that we’re privy to attest to its being a compelling read all the same, or perhaps because of this. (You really can’t always say this about excerpts from fictional books either. I will admit to skipping all the italicized parts of Possession.) And Augusta herself, with her sordid history, her mountains of baggage and disappointments, comes to be such a multi-dimensional character that it’s too bad that she’s given such a two-dimensional world to live in, that the narrative Renzetti constructs is less plot than scaffold. Material this good seems deserving of more.
Still, Based on a Truth Story is a worthy novel based on its insights, if not its plotting. Renzetti resists cliche in more than a few places, but in particular with her conclusion and its dose of sober realism (or unsober realism, as the case may be). “We have work to do,” says Augusta Pierce in the novel’s final line, and so too does Renzetti, and I hope she’s prepared to get hard at it one of these days, because her second book is going to be wonderful.
June 19, 2014
Update: So pleased that Nathalie Foy took excellent notes and recapped last night’s conversation about mothers in children’s books. You can read all about it here.
One last event for The M Word to cap off a wonderful spring of excellent indie book shops. Oh, it’s been fun, a whirlwind. And this was the perfect way to finish, an intimate gathering at the bookshop just around the corner from my house. The sun poured in the windows as evening rolled in, and we had a really good time talking moms in children’s books–dead moms, overbearing moms, harassed moms, and moms with lives of their own. Reading books, talking books, and buying books. Terrific fun. Thanks to Parent Books for hosting such a fun event, and to the excellent women of The M Word for turning out and being fabulous. It has been such a pleasure to work with all of you.
June 18, 2014
June 18, 2014
Nine years ago today, I got married, and about ten years ago, when this date was selected, what first occurred to me was, “How cool! Paul McCartney’s birthday.” Because to me, June 18th has always been Paul McCartney’s birthday first, at least since I was a Beatles-obsessed 13 year old and organized a Paul McCartney Birthday Bash in my dorm room during our Grade 8 year-end trip to Ottawa. (It was not a wild bash. I recall jumping on a bed, and turning the volume all the way up on my Sony Sports Walkman so we could listen to The Beatles’ 1967-70 through the headphones.)
As I did to a lot of things, I came to The Beatles late, about 20-some years late. Being a Beatles-obsessed 13 year-old in 1992 was a curious thing. It involved feeling inordinate, impossible pain at John Lennon’s murder; trying to be a vegetarian because of Linda; scouring the TV guide every week in order to schedule tapings of Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live or showings of John Lennon Imagine on Much Music. I even kept a scrapbook, comprising clippings of Paul McCartney’s son’s surfing mishap, various Beatles’ legal troubles, and a cut-out of the “Be My Yoko Ono” lyrics from my Barenaked Ladies’ “Gordon” cassette tape liner notes. I made Beatles posters in my Grade 8 art class–they weren’t very good. I bought Beatles’ biographies written by Geoffrey Giuliano and Hunter Davies. I built a Beatles shrine in my Design and Technology class, specially designed to store my cassette tapes and biographies. I was forbidden to talk about them at the dinner table. I listened to their music over and over (and learned to play their songs on the guitar). I remember listening to Hey Jude for the first time when I was about 11 years old, sitting in my backyard with a red battery-powered cassette player, and it was as though I’d discovered for the meaning of life. The meaning of my life. For a few years, it really was.
So I was eager to read Beth Kaplan’s memoir, All My Loving: Coming of Age With Paul McCartney in Paris. Kaplan was fortunate enough to fall in love with the Beatles at just the right time, on the cusp of her own adolescence and the Beatles’ fame. The memoir is based on her own diaries, scrapbooks and short stories (in which she fantasized about being Paul McCartney’s wife and/or [gasp!] his lover). In a fun and breezy fashion, she puts her reader in the mindset of a 13 year old girl who is as confused by the world as she is by her terrifying range of emotions, and who is also in thrall with The Beatles. Like many of her peers, her identity as a “Beatlemaniac” was one of her first acts of self-definition, a small rebellion against her conservative parents. Though they’re not so conservative–the book begins with young Beth ecstatic at the news that her parents are attending a Ban the Bomb demonstration, and therefore she is free to turn the radio dial and hear “She Loves You” for the very first time, and I love the way she describes her visceral reaction to the music, the way she’s transformed by it and so is the world around her.
Kaplan outlines a complicated relationship with her parents, even more complicated than the average teenage love/hate, and while she alludes to her own parents’ experience (her father experiencing anti-semitism as a professor at Dalhousie University; or the time her mother reported of The Feminine Mystique, “I took one look at Betty Friedan and put the book down”) and she is indeed chronicling a cultural phenomenon, there is a lot in the book that is particular also. But the particularity is not always explained, instead the reader receiving the unfiltered thoughts of a solipsistic teen girl and all the contradictions that entails. (One of the many times I laughed out loud was when her list of “hates” included The Dave Clark Five and “intolerance.”) This approach makes sense in the grand scheme of the project, but it also leaves the reader with a lot of questions.
But then, the Beatles are the focus, as they were for 13 year old Beth, her parents’ own dramas firmly in the background. Or perhaps the Beatles were her escape? And Paul McCartney in particular, her chosen Beatle, the proxy by which she explores notions of love and lust and sex and longing. During the time she recounts in the memoir, she moves with her family to Paris for her father’s sabbatical year, and the Beatles are a consolation of her loneliness during this time, and also a bridge between her and her French classmates.
I was especially amused by her friend in France who had learned to speak English through Beatles lyrics, and so only spoke as such, expressing her gratitude with, “Thank you girl” and other such phrases. And it made me think about how those of us who learned about life through the Beatles are similarly equipped, not so literally, but still, to us, the world is all Strawberry Fields, A Day in the Life, Help and Penny Lane, etc. I knew these songs before I knew the world, is what I mean, and in a way, these songs are still my foundation, fundamental to my vocabulary. (Longing for love meant longing for someone to get high when they see me go by. My oh my). It is probable that Beatles songs have affected the shape of my brain.
I went to see Paul McCartney at Exhibition Stadium on June 6 1992 on his Live in the New World Tour. It still stands out as one of the most extraordinary days of my life, and I will never forget the excitement, but also the sadness at my realization that I was just one tiny person is a sea of people that night, that he couldn’t see me at all. That indeed, he’d been the subject of “All My Loving” (for I too was a Paul girl, even though he was not far away from being 64 at the time) but to him, I didn’t even exist. That all my loving was only a drop in the ocean… and it was heartbreaking. Such is the pain of being a 13 year old girl.
And even though she did it at the right time, a few decades before me, Beth Kaplan’s memoir brought the whole thing back. The roller coaster ride, the battles, and the unbelievable excitement of being on the edge of something huge–such confidence too that in just another year or two, surely we’re going to have the whole world figured out.