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Pickle Me This

July 16, 2018

Summer Reading

When we arrived at our rental cottage up north last Saturday, I was surprised to feel troubled, because here we were in the most idyllic place imaginable on a glorious summer day, the beginning of a splendid week. But it was unease that I encountered—so slight but visceral—as I climbed the hill, took in the vista, and walked the paths I last walked almost a year ago. A few moments before it all clicked: it had been the books, of course. And also the weather—last summer the sky was always dark and brooding and there were storms every day. It was such an uneasy summer, climate-wise, and the books I’d brought along with me only complemented the atmosphere. It is possible that anyone would feel disturbed upon returning to the place where they’d read Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, I mean, or experienced the intensity of Liane Moriarty’s Truly, Madly, Guilty. Wilde Lake too, which was a modern take on To Kill a Mockingbird, but with more sinister undertones. Our last night there I started reading a Louise Penny novel and the weather in the opening chapter was identical to the thunder storm crashing outside our cabin window, and I began to wonder if the line between fiction and reality had become blurred. It really was intense, all of it, nine books in a week the definition of intensity anyway. So that when I arrived back there, it all came back, those incredible books I’d been so wrapped up in.

Last year’s summer reads.

It’s funny how books stay with you, and not always in the ways you’d expect. I really enjoyed Jessica J. Lee’s Turning: A Year in the Water last year at the cottage, but it wasn’t a book I expected to return to. I gave that book away in the spring, but when I jumped into the lake last week (over and over again) I realized what a mistake I’d made, that here was a book that had changed my life. I’ve been jumping into lakes and pools ever since I read it instead of easing my way in gently (and sloooowly) as in previous summers, thinking, “If Jessica J. Lee can use a hammer to crack the ice and jump in a lake in December, I’m certainly capable of a cannonball in July.” Back in the lake beside which I first read it, I realized how much this memoir needs a space in my book collection. How much all those books I read last summer had gotten under my skin.

I wasn’t sure how the reading was going to pan out this year—we were going on vacation with three other families, and while this was a very good plan, I was concerned that being surrounded on all sides by people I like might get in the way of my reading prowess. But it turned out not to be the case because, a) it turned out no one was interested in surrounding me on all sides 24 hours a day b) everyone else was reading too and c) our friends had brought their children, who whisked mine away for so much freedom, fun and adventure that I scarcely saw them all week long and therefore got to read so much that I almost go bored of reading. (Almost. I did, however, get bored of potato chips, shockingly, but that was only very temporary and things are back to normal.)

Anyway, it turns out that I read nine books again, and it was exhilarating and amazing. Liane Moriarty again, who does not get nearly enough credit for being a literary genius—the nuance and craft in her work is astounding. More Laura Lippman too, because she is just such an astounding novelist. The latest Birder Murder Mystery, A Tiding of Magpies, which was the first anti-Brexit novel I’ve read since Ali Smith’s Autumn (and it made me thinking about whether a good pro-Brexit novel was a literary impossibility). I really liked it, and also Death in a Darkening Mist, by Iona Wishaw, the third book I’ve read in the Lane Winslow mystery series which has really been a highlight of my summer. The new Caitlin Moran, which was so terrific, laugh-out-loud funny, powerful and profound. So glad to read Celeste Ng’s first novel after loving her latest a few months back. I was happy standing in line at Webers, because I had Tish Cohen’s Little Green in my bag, which was a certainly a novel that had me in its thrall. And Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother still has me thinking about all the spaces in between its story and I think I’m haunted by the ending—such a subtly provocative book.

I wonder which of these will still be haunting me a year from now?

July 5, 2018

Writing With Children

So it seems that I am writing a novel this summer, and we’ve been here before. I wrote my first draft of Mitzi Bytes during the summer of 2014, when Iris was one and Harriet was five and would sit beside me on the couch watching Annie while her sister napped. Two years later I wrote Asking for a Friend in the same way, except that no one napped anymore, but what I did do was close the baby gate on our door and sit out on the porch with my laptop while the children were barricaded indoors with a bin full of snacks. They were allowed to watch movies, but only after they’d earned it with an hour of imaginative play—and then in the afternoon we’d head out into the world and do something fun or interesting.

I don’t know what it is about summer—when I have limited childcare and the world is calling with its sunshine—that imbues me with inspiration. It’s really quite impractical and inconvenient to decide to spend a summer writing a book, but it’s also exhilarating. For me, summer is about stretching anyway, about pushing limits. How far can we go, is a thing I wonder in summer, as the days go long and the children get filthy, and there’s sand in everything, and we’re so tired, but we keep going, because summer only lasts so long, and a terrible thing would be to give up before it did (and it always does eventually…).

So what follows is a list of what works for me with writing and being home with my children. And naturally, I recognize that I am privileged that I get to be home with my children in the summer, but before you assume it’s all too cozy, remember that I make my living from work that I must fit in around fiction writing and my children (and dentist appointments, and laundry, and shaking sand out of things) in the summer, and it’s all very busy and a juggle, but I also wouldn’t want it any other way.

  1. Write first. In the summer I have to work in the evenings after my children are in bed to make it all happen—but I never ever save my writing for that time. Because the writing is the work I’m accountable to no one else for but myself, and it would be so easy to just decide to wait until tomorrow. So I make it my first priority.
  2. Set a word count. This is why I like first drafts, because it’s quantifiable and finite. 1000 words a day works for me, and I’m experienced enough by now to know that those words don’t even have to be good—that’s what subsequent drafts are for. But this one is just to show me where there the story is going.
  3. Make my children part of the process. I make my writing a family affair, and my children know that by giving me the time and space to get my 1000 words done, they’re helping to make my story happen. When Mitzi Bytes came out, it was a big deal for both of them, because they knew they’d played a part in the book’s creation.
  4. Don’t talk about it until it’s done: I love Instagram, and take my #todaysteacup photo every day—see photo above. But I don’t post the photo until my writing session is finished—it’s a reward to myself. Don’t be #AmWriting unless you’ve written.
  5. Keep going: I’ve talked before about how I took up jogging the same summer I wrote Mitzi Bytes, but that I quit jogging because I hated it, right after I burst into tears in Queen’s Park because I hated it so much. Except for the hating part, for me jogging and writing a novel are pretty much the same. JUST KEEP GOING. One foot/one word in front of the other—it’s as simple as that. It’s such a little, manageable thing when you break it down like that. Don’t stop. You can do one more word, and then another and then another. (Although if you find yourself bursting into tears in the middle of a sentence because you hate it so much, remember that you’re also allowed to quit. To do otherwise would be stupid.)
  6. Read: I had nostalgia last weekend because I remember reading Emma Strab’s The Vacationers on the July long weekend just as I’d started writing Mitzi Bytes—I loved that book, and it inspired me. And then I went back to my blog to see what were the books I’d read just before it, and they were Based on a True Story, by Elizabeth Renzetti, and Mating For Life, by Marissa Stapley, neither of whom were my friends at the time, although now they are, which isn’t the point, but instead that I wrote a better book because I was inspired by books that were doing the kinds of things I wanted to do.
  7. Shut the door. As I’ve written before, I don’t actually have a door, but there is a metaphoric one that my children have learned to observe and respect. I also continue to make sure the snack bin is full so that their needs are taken care of. But in the meantime, I’m busy, and they know that, and they’re cool with that…
  8. …Because they’re really happy watching Teen Titans Go on Netflix!
  9. Day camp! They’re doing a week of full-day camp and two weeks of half-day camp this summer, and I’ll be motivated to use that time like nobody’s business.
  10. Keep it low key. We do fun and local (and often free!) free things in the afternoons once I’ve met my word count. Truth be told, we are a bit boring, but summer is about boring, in addition to Netflix, and as long as the freezer is stocked with popsicles, nobody seems to mind.

July 2, 2018

Florida, by Lauren Groff

It continues to be one of my favourite serendipitous things, reading a short story to realize I’d read it before, long ago, in an entirely different context. I wrote about this when I finally read Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories in 2012 and realized I’d read “Celia Behind Me” two decades before in my Grade 12 English textbook: “And I realized that I’d read this story before, more than once. It was so strangely familiar, like something I’d known in a dream, but somebody else’s dream.” I remember it also happening when I read Lauren Groff’s “L. DeBard and Aliette” in her first story collection Delicate Edible Birds in 2009, and I realized I’d read the story in The Atlantic in 2006, that it was the first thing by Lauren Groff I’d ever read—before The Monsters of Templeton, even. Before I even realized there was such a thing as Lauren Groff, who has since gone on to become my very favourite writer.

I love “rediscovering” these stories for so many reasons, for the way it suggests the architecture of my mind is infinite dusty corridors and who knows what lies around the next corner, and also for how it underlines that nothing ever goes away. That those dusty corridors are lines with rooms that are full of stuff, everything I’ve seen or heard or thought or read, and how it’s still there, all of it, even if not immediately accessible.

Midway through Florida—which is a book I’d picked up with more expectations than previous works by Groff, but also with the expectation that I was to suspend all expectations because she never does the same thing twice—I came upon her story “Above and Below.” And partway through that story I realized I’d read this one before as well, in The New Yorker in 2011.  And I remember not liking it. This was before Arcadia, before I properly understood the breadth of Lauren Groff’s literary ambition, of her range. This was before the world fell apart as well, after the global economy melted down in 2008 but in that quiet period where it seemed like it all might be okay, and those of us who didn’t live in places like Florida might have been fooled into thinking that progress was an ongoing story. I remember that I just didn’t see the point.

In the context of 2018 though, of this book itself, the story reads very differently to me. I also found it interesting to think about the story in the context of Arcadia, which was about a community that comes together and then falls apart, as the society depicted in “Above and Below” also seems to be unravelling, or at least it is for the protagonist—I see how it fits into her oeuvre in a way I wasn’t able to appreciate at the time. And it certainly does fit into this collection, which is of stories in which dread is creeping, danger lurks, children are stranded alone on islands, and the possibility that a sinkhole might open at any time beneath you is not especially remote.

Florida is a locality of extremes—I am frequently grateful for living smack-dab in the middle of the continent, as immune as one could possibly be from hurricanes, earthquakes, or alligators. When I hear stories like that of a sinkhole that swallowed an entire house, I think to myself, “Well, that’s a Florida story,” and go on with my day. Although if I’ve learned anything in the last few years, it’s that what’s going on at the edges, in the margins, has deeper ramifications than I ever really realized. That a story like “Above and Below,” about a character who loses everything and just keeps going—it seems less marginal now than it did in 2011.

I like Florida for how it’s a book as well as a collection of stories. I like stories, but when I pick up a book, a book is what I want, for there to be themes and connections that tie it all together. Not that the stories be linked, necessarily, but that they inform each other. Context matters. I want a story collection to be a book that’s capable of being grasped and understood as a whole. Which is the whole reason I’d be shaking this one emphatically and imploring you to read it: Florida! It’s so good. It will break your heart about this miserable perilous world, but you’ll also love that world a little bit more because this incredible book is in it.

June 28, 2018

A moratorium on calling out pro-life campaigners for hypocrisy…

I would like to ask for a moratorium on calling out pro-life campaigners for hypocrisy. For their fervour at protecting the unborn all the while shrugging as actual human beings are deprived of health insurance, or for freaking out about the death of a zygote all the while living breathing babies are languishing in prisons after being removed from their parents at the Mexican border. For calling themselves “pro-life” even while they’re aware that all research shows that banning safe and legal abortion doesn’t lead to fewer abortions, but it leads to more women dying. These points being made as though these people aren’t aware of the flaws in their logic, as though lack of logic is the problem. As though the crime here is inconsistency, instead of a heartless disregard for women’s bodies and lives.

It occurred to me last week after reading this piece that there is actually no disconnect between wanting to deprive a woman access to reproductive health and leaving a migrant child in a cage at a Walmart-turned-Detention Camp. Both stances are about dehumanization, about a readiness to make somebody into “the other,” about a comfort with state control of bodies and freedom that results from a lack of imagination, from a certainty that “the other” is never going to be you.

(There is a difference between a personal discomfort with and distaste for abortion and actively campaigning for its restrictions and ultimate abolishment. Finding abortion abhorrent but understanding the role it plays in healthcare and in so many women’s lives is the definition of humane. On the other hand, becoming one of those anti-choice activists [who are so often young because most people who are grown up understand that life and the world is complicated] playing right into the hands of powerful and well-funded right-wing forces which are underwriting the entire movement in the first place is abjectly cruel, and ignorant, and, if history is any indication, is only going to make the world a more terrible place to live.)

I wrote this 18 months ago: In prioritizing the rights of a fetus you must necessarily steamroll over the bodies and lives of actual womenAnd this is the problem with being pro-life, not that you’ve failed a thought experiment or a rhetorical exercise, but that you’re comfortable with women’s bodies being made disposable. It says a lot.

I didn’t use to talk about abortion all the time. I didn’t used to have the word “FEMINIST” three times in my Twitter bio. When I had an abortion sixteen years ago, it never occurred to me not to take my access to this service for granted. That women were people deserving of equal rights, which included the right to control what happens to their bodies, was as obvious to me as, well, the fact that Black lives matter. I used to think that none of these points of view was remotely political, and instead just matter of being a person in the world, and not even a particularly decent one.

But the reason why I’m writing yet another post about abortion is because every day seems to give me another reason for not shutting up. Because there is an active movement to clamp down on these rights that years ago I was naive and lucky enough to think I could take for granted. It’s not even a conspiracy theory, guys, because they’ll tell you. They’re even proud of it, and they’re celebrating every time a person who doesn’t know any better goes out and elects a right-wing populist because of concerns about provincial debt.

Abortion is the tip of the iceberg. It’s never been about fetuses—don’t you know that? It’s about controlling women, and limiting their freedom to make choices about their bodies and their lives. It’s the same impulse that tears a baby from her mother, and takes her away on a bus to a migrant camp. And I hope you will join me in resisting it at every single step.

June 26, 2018

Homes: A Refugee Story, by Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah

When I think back to Fall 2015, I can’t help but cringe. It was an awful time, absolutely shameful, when a deranged man with a gun attacked the Canadian parliament during the most awful Canadian election I can remember, when Ministers were announcing “barbaric practices hotline” and simply throwing up their hands when the body of a child washed up on a Turkish beach, one of so many migrants who’ve been drowned. People kept hearkening back to the response of Canadians to the Vietnamese refugee crisis, and wondering if some fundamental morality was missing from us now, or perhaps we’d all been overtaken by inertia. It was the worst of times—it just was. And then something shifted.

With the election of a Liberal Government that October, Canada’s hard policies toward refugees was eased, and families started arriving. Suddenly everyone I knew was sponsoring a Syrian family, or tutoring them in English, and families joined our school community, became my children’s classmates. It’s been an incredible story, albeit not a straightforward one, but what human stories ever are? Did you read the one about the chocolate company founded by a Syrian refugee and their Pride-themed chocolate bars? Remember when Chris Alexander blamed the Syrian refugee crisis on the CBC? Oh my goodness, I do not miss that guy one single bit.

I will note that Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah and his family arrived in Canada in late 2014, one of the lucky few that were permitted when Canada was being pretty stingy with welcomes. And that his is just a single story standing for many, but still, it’s a remarkable thing to hear a refugee story from a Syrian point of view. Homes: A Refugee Story, as told to Winnie Yeung, who was Bakr’s teacher at his Edmonton high school. He wanted to share his story, he told her, to honour his experiences, so much loss, the friends and family he’d said goodbye to when he left his home. And so together they created this book, which is categorized as a work of creative-nonfiction, Yeung writing in Bakr’s voice, with information gleaned from interviews with his family.

Together, they tell the story of Bakr’s early childhood, born in Iraq: “It wasn’t always like this. My life wasn’t always like a scene from Call of Duty or Counter Strike.” He remembers delicious food, being surrounded by family. But eventually it becomes very difficult to be a Sunni Muslim in Baserah, where they lived, and after a cousin’s body is found in a dumpster, the family decides to leave. In 2010, they received visas to relocate to Homs in Syria where they already had family, and a twenty-four hour bus ride leads them to their new home.

Soon after arriving, the family apples for refugee status—Bakr’s father suspects that Syria will not be any safer than Iraq, and his suspicions prove prescient with the arrival of the Arab Spring in 2011, which would come to throw Syria into its bloody civil war. The first sign is an attack on the mosque where Bakr and his family are praying, and this first time the response is disbelief—could they be being shot at? But eventually they’d become numb to the violence, accustomed to the sound of gunfire and explosions—though never to the terror of being approached by government thugs in the street. But even still, life goes on. Bakr’s father tells him: “Death doesn’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. Even life doesn’t matter, son. What matters is living your life with your family, with the people you love. We love each other, hard, and hold on tight. What we face, we face together. Together we can move forward and every little happiness we can have, we enjoy. We cannot let hatred and fear stop us from living.”

This is a story about an ordinary childhood against an extraordinary backdrop—eventually the schools close, the field where Bakr and his friends play soccer is overtaken by snipers, Bakr witnesses his first massacre, and then another one—what kind of a childhood is that? But then the family wins the lottery (literally) and receives permission to travel and make a new home in Canada. It’s such a long way from there to here, but Bakr (and Yeung) are so generous in sharing the journey.

  • This book nicely complements Ausma Zehanat Khan’s A Dangerous Crossing, a gripping novel about the plight and trauma of Syrian refugees that similarly brings the story of this brutal war to life.

 

June 20, 2018

Us.

Kent Monkman, The Scream

‘Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies,” “one against all,” that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man.’ —Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

“Not they. Us” —Hassan Ahmed

Please forgive me for stealing my epigraphs from Rebecca Woolf’s Instagram feed. But I just want to take a moment to think about books, to think about Zlata’s Diary, a book about a young girl being a young girl during the siege of Sarajevo in 1993, a book that was compared to The Diary of Anne Frank, much to Zlata Filipovic’s consternation, I recall—because Anne Frank died and Filipovic didn’t want to. I remember reading both these books and imagining my way into the lives of their writers, the recognizable landmarks of girlhood, childhood. There was nothing extraordinary about their lives or their worlds, and that was the very point—how perilous was safety, was everything. How easily these people could be me, and didn’t you think this too when you read book like this? When I used to think that books about the Holocaust were even over-taught (my childhood was absolutely saturated with Holocaust novels), although I don’t think that anymore. Not since I learned that not everyone is reading, or at least reading and realizing how easily it could be any of us. Which is what I thought when I read Sharon Bala’s The Boat People, or even An Ocean of Minutes, which is also about being a refugee, about that desperation. I’ve read so many of these stories that imagining my way into the minds of people who risk everything for the chance of a better life is like a reflex—there is no difference between that mother and me. And I’ve seen enough of the world during these last two years politically and even in terms of climate that has undermined all my certainties about who we are and where we’re going that I’m unwilling to be sure that my own safety will never be in peril, that I will never be the kind of person who has to run. We are all that kind of person, or we all could be, and that’s only my selfish reason for condemning the separation of children and their families at US borders. Let alone the humanitarian one. Acknowledging too that I live in a country with a shameful history of separating children from their parents, a history that lingers on into the present—so this “not them. us.” as well. The Thomas King quote: “You see my problem. The history I offered to forget, the past I offered to burn, turns out to be our present. It may well be our future.” Let’s be as loud and brave as girls in storybooks and ensure that’s not the case.

‘In grade school we studied WWII. Learning about the genocide and the concentration camps and the way a whole group of people were dehumanized and carted off like cattle, many of us said, very earnestly: “I’d never let that happen.” Well now we are adults and guess what? It is happening. We are watching it happen.’ —Sharon Bala. (And now read her blog post, “What to do.”)

June 19, 2018

Ayesha At Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin

True confession: I’m not a huge fan of Jane Austen and think Colin Firth is kind of drippy, so while the Pride and Prejudice connections to Uzma Jalaluddin’s debut novel Ayesha at Last might get some readers going, it was never going to be me. But thankfully Jalaluddin doesn’t stop at Austen while giving her novel its literary underpinnings—her main character Ayesha’s grandfather is an English professor who peppers his speech with allusions to Shakespeare and he’s the one who points out the similar framework between Ayesha’s own story and many of Shakespeare’s plays—”Shakespeare enjoyed a good farce. Separated twins, love triangles and mistaken identity were his specialty. Yet it is through his tragedies that one learns the price of silence.” He implores his granddaughter, “Promise you will always choose laughter over tears. Promise you will choose to live in a comedy instead of a tragedy.” But any life, of course, will always be a bit of both.

In Ayesha at Last, the shenanigans begin when Khalid, a very conservative Muslim, takes an interest in the woman who lives across the street in his new neighbourhood, which sounds like no big thing, except Khalid is devoutly uninterested in women in general because he’s waiting for his mother to arrange his marriage. He also refuses to shake his new boss’s hand, because touching women goes against his beliefs, which causes his boss to turn against him with brutal results. And then later at a meeting at his mosque to help organize a youth conference, he finds himself face-to-face with the woman he’s been watching…except he thinks she’s her cousin, and attraction sparks between them before some inevitable mishaps ensue.

And the woman, of course, is Ayesha herself, who’s starting a new career as a teacher to pay back a debt to her uncle, although she’d rather be writing poetry or doing anything but standing in front of a classroom of high school students. She gets roped into organizing the youth conference because of her flighty cousin Hafza who is currently entertaining several potential husbands (mostly because she’s longing to kickstart her career as an event planner, and feels her own wedding would be the best place to start). Her best friend is Clara, who works with Khalid (in HR, which doesn’t make it easy when Khalid’s boss goes on her vindictive rampage). And Ayesha has absolutely no interest in Khalid, with his robes and untrimmed beard and archaic ideas of what it means to be a proper woman or a proper Muslim. But when the two of them are together, something happens and the force is unstoppable.

There are a couple of instances of awkward maneuvering at the beginning of the story to get all the players in their proper places, but once the story starts, Ayesha At Last becomes very difficult to put down. Neither Ayesha nor Khalid is a perfect human, and at first they tend to bring out each other’s worst tendencies, and then there’s the matter of Khalid not knowing Ayesha’s actual identity, and when he gets to engaged to the actual Hafsa (thinking she is Ayesha) it all begins to go wrong. The story is further complicated with the involvement of Khalid’s sister, who was sent away to India years before under dubious circumstances and Khalid is too afraid of his mother to ask the right questions about what happened to her, and also Ayesha’s own mother who is bitter about marriage after her husband’s mysterious death, so Ayesha doesn’t have the answers in her own family history either. And what is the role of love then, and is it a blessing or a curse, and does it have a role at all in communities that adhere to traditional values?

Ayesha at Last is completely a delight, more farce than tragedy, but with depth and poignancy and a willingness to grapple with big questions. It’s a smart and assured debut that is deliciously devourable and deserves space on everyone’s reading list this summer.

June 18, 2018

Day Curator

This line from Behind the Scenes at the Museum continues to mean a lot to me, years after I first encountered it: “Albert collected good days the way other people collected coins, or sets of postcards.” I’ve quoted it in blog posts so many times. Running counter to that cliched phrase you can buy embroidered on decorative pillows about how we don’t remember days, we remember moments. But no way, because for me it’s days all the way, and this weekend we had two of them, both of which I documented extensively via Instagram. And of course it does strike me as peculiar, not to mention not cool, nine Instagram posts in a day, I mean.

But then I read Shawna Lemay’s wonderful post this morning on blogging for writers, and she writes, “I think what keeps me blogging is this need to share both pictures, and stuff that I find uplifting or thought provoking or beautiful. Yes, I could share all of this on social media, but I like that on a personal blog, I can save it all in one place, as one used to do with a commonplace book. I like to think of the blog as a work of art unto itself, and one, that I really don’t think has been fully explored as of yet. What I’m saying, is that there’s room. There’s space. An openness.” Which is why I’m writing this post at all, I think, because the Instagram posts are not quite enough, but the impulse behind the blog and Instagram alike are the same: I want to save these moments, add them to my collection, and have the opportunity later to recall exactly what the light looked like then.

Remember that point about midway through the last decade where the economy still worked and people weren’t completely disillusioned, and cities were thriving, and Richard Florida was a prophet? What I remember about that cultural moment was that creative people kept making up weird job titles and people were even buying it, and I really missed a key opportunity to get in there and brand myself as a Day Curator. In 2006, someone would have paid for me to do that, and if they had, this weekend I would have earned my bonus.

On Saturday we went to Toronto Island, which was especially exciting because we’d planned the same for the May 24 long weekend, but then everyone kept getting sick, and the closest we came was a picnic beside an empty wading pool at the park down the street. But this Saturday we actually made it to the ferry, and there we were on the lake and it’s one of my favourite journeys and never gets dull, the coolness of the breeze, holding onto our hats, and the city skyline to the north of us—this majestic place that is home.

We headed to the amusement park first to get some rides in before the lineups started, and were happy to discover that both kids can mostly ride independently now, which is a big deal for us. I love Centreville, its smallness and charm, how it doesn’t depress me the way that every other amusement park does, is not overwhelming, employees are always lovely, and I have such fond memories of visiting there as a child so I love that my children get to experience it too. Plus, the log flume.

Afterwards, we walked to the south side of the island and spread our blanket in the shade of a tree conveniently located between the playground and the splash-pad. We had a delightful picnic (thanks to a baguette and cheese from grocery store) and then children played while we read our books, and I revelled in my sun-dappled pages. When they were finished, we packed up and did a bit of exploring, and then began the long walk to Ward’s Island, with its beach and popsicle, and I only had to piggyback Iris 3/4 of the way. The beach was not ideal—the water level was Yuck, although it was too cold for swimming anyway. But we did get to feel sand under our feet, and collect a few pieces of beach glass (which I think about similarly to how I think about think about good days).

By the end of an island day, I am always unfathomably exhausted, cannot muster the strength to climb the stairs to the second deck of the ferry, and contemplate napping on the bench until we arrive back in the city. The subway ride home passes in a blur, and lastly, we have to shake the sand out of everything.

Sunday was Father’s Day, which is historically (in our family) the day somebody throws up, and so we’ve learned that “nobody threw up” actually means a really good day no matter what else happened—but this year we managed to take it to the next level. (A lot of this goodness is because our children are five and nine. Have I mentioned how much I love having children who are five and nine?) It was also going to be 40 degrees celsius after the humidex, so we decided to keep the day air-con’d. So we went to the movies to see Incredibles 2, which was enjoyed by all, and we’d packed swimsuits and towels so we could head to the pool after, which just opened this weekend for summer. But then we checked the schedule and found out the pool closed for a bit in the afternoon, which gave us time to head to Summers Ice Cream in Yorkville for fancy cones, and then to the ROM for some air-conditioned goodness as we took in their brand new amazing exhibit on spiders. And then by then the pool was open again, and we hopped on the subway (all the air-con!) for a swim. And oh, it was glorious. I love public pools, where everybody just shows up on hot days. I love all the bodies, the splashing, the obnoxious people, the towels spread out on the deck, the way the water cools you down just like that, and how my children have turned into little fish. The swimming pool is everything I love about living the city.

And then we came home and made dinner, school lunches, and our children were exhausted, and we put them to bed as soon as we could. And then I headed outside to my hammock to read by what remained of daylight, which lasted until nearly ten o’clock. And if I could preserve in a jar these perfect pre-solstice days, those hours, that light—well, I would. Which is kind of what I’ve done here anyway, with relish.

June 15, 2018

The Steves, by Morag Hood

A thought that occurs to me sometimes is that there are an awful lot of Steves in general, and definitely too many Stevens in Canadian Literature (but not you, Steven, I’m talking about the other ones, unless you are that one, then I am definitely talking about you), and then yesterday I got this package in the mail, so the whole situation has definitely become alarming. Which seemed like the perfect occasion to make The Steves, by Morag Hood, my picture book Friday selection, I thought, even though Hood’s Steves are not Canadian and therefore can’t be held responsible for CanLit Steveness (but they would probably get along well with Kelly Collier’s Horse Named Steve, who has a new book out this fall called Team Steve [YAY!!!]).

Morag Hood’s Steves are puffins, naturally, each is surprised to find another Steve on his turf. “But I was here first,” declares Steve. “BY ONE PAGE,” declares Steve in a different typeface. Neither is content to let the other be Steve the First. Who is the oldest? Who is the wisest? Who is the greatest? Yes indeed, this becomes just another Steve-measuring contest. Which one is the Stevest Steve? They even turn to insults: “WEIRD FEET STEVE.” “SMELLS OF POO STEVE.” Which takes the whole thing just a step too far, and then the friends apologize, shortly before running into a third puffin, and guys, you’re never going to guess what his name is…

June 13, 2018

An Ocean of Minutes, by Thea Lim

So the book whose spell I’m currently under is Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes, which is just another one of your usual time travel/flu pandemic/post-apocalyptic fare. (Ambitious, yes?) It’s 1981, and Polly and her boyfriend Frank are stuck in Texas where he comes down with the illness that will kill him unless they can secure life-saving treatment. And the only way to pay for this treatment is possible is for Polly to sign a contract to travel into the future and becoming a bonded worker for TimeRaiser, the company that invented time travel and which is now bringing workers from pre-pandemic America into the future to help rebuild the nation. So Frank and Polly agree to meet again in 1993 and she departs from 1981 at the Houston International Airport: “The only thing remaining of familiar airport protocol is the logistical thoughtlessness of the curb: once you reach it, the line of unfeeling motorists waiting behind you means only seconds to say goodbye.” Twelve years. “It’s a quarter of a blink of an eye in the life of the universe.”

But the process is not straightforward (and there have been rumours about TimeRaiser; plus Polly is one of the few skilled workers—an upholsterer—on the journey, and most of her fellow travellers are women Polly thinks might be Mexican, women who don’t speak English, who are even more desperate than she is) and Polly arrives not in 1993, but in 1998, and in a reality nothing like she’d expected. The pandemic has destroyed infrastructure and industry, societal order has collapsed, and the only hope for Texas is health-tourism for the affluent, and Polly will be employed refurbishing furniture for the new resorts because there are no means to manufacture new things. She’d last seen Frank in 1981, just days ago, and then weeks, then months—but it’s been seventeen years for him in a world that’s become a nightmare. Will he even be waiting for her? And if he is, how will she even find him?

There is nothing straightforward about the passage of time, which is why stories about defying chronology through time travel continue to fascinate, and why a telling a story outside of chronology can add such richness to a text (i.e. how Lim’s novel moves back and forth between Polly and Frank’s life in Buffalo from 1978-1981, and to Polly’s journey alone in 1998 Galveston). What it means too that the future Polly travels to in An Ocean of Minutes is set twenty years in our past—historical speculative fiction? And the metaphor that the seventeen years Frank has to wait is but moments for Polly—but isn’t time like that? And isn’t love? How long does one wait? How far does love go?

The people Polly encounters in 1998 are ruthless and awful, which is probably why they’ve survived, but at what price? There is no beauty in this craven new world, in which workers are slaves to the TimeRaiser corporation. Polly enjoys brief moments of connection with the people she encounters, but many of them end up betraying her—mostly to save themselves, or boost themselves, at least. She ends up losing her privileged job and accommodations, and going to live among the women she’d come across at the beginning of her journey, working to cut tiles for swimming pools. And although everyone she encounters has stories of people they were to expecting but failed to be reunited with, Polly refuses to give up on Frank, and it seems like she’s keeping the faith for everyone.

There’s so much going on this book, including passages of wondrous prose and attempts to answer the question of where love goes when it’s over. What are we do with memories? And what about mementos? Early in their relationship, Polly wonders by Frank’s tendency to keep things, souvenirs of their love—does he think their love will end, she wonders? Does he hold on things because of a lack of faith? And yet even Polly longs to preserve their perfect moments, just to hold them. And yet the hours, the minutes, the seconds—they just go and go and go. So is it remotely reasonable to expect love to be a thing that stays the same?

I had to know what happened, so I kept reading, reading, gripped. But (unusual for me) I didn’t flip to the end, just to check. I didn’t want spoilers. I wanted to find out what would happen, but all in good time, and I had faith in Lim’s storytelling—so I held on, and was so impressed by the extent of the allegory, about race and gender, migration, capitalism, environmental and the perilous balance of so much that we take for granted.

I loved this book, and how it turns another time into another country, but doesn’t it always seem that way? So far away, and yesterday, and it’s as though you could almost get back there, and you nearly know the way.

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