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Pickle Me This

September 1, 2020

Gleanings

Do you like reading good things online and want to make sure you don’t miss a “Gleanings” post? Then sign up to receive “Gleanings” delivered to your inbox each week(ish). And if you’ve read something excellent that you think we ought to check out, share the link in a comment below.

August 31, 2020

Look for the Light

Everything I know about uncertainty I have learned from being a writer, and being a blogger. And I have never really had to use this knowledge in a practical sense until the last few months, and there have been days and weeks when I’ve done a very bad job of it, but in general I am keeping an even keel, and here is the stuff that is helping me with that.

1) Nobody knows what is going to happen next. This is a promise as much as it’s also a curse. But we keep going/reading/writing to discover, and it takes faith, stamina, courage. We all possess these things, and can cultivate them too.

2) If magic is real, it lies in the process, where one thing turns into another. And process is never a straight line. There will be setbacks and failures. Some drafts will be garbage. And it’s easy to be mired in the process, to despair at all the road ahead, if it will ever end, if that road is a road at all.

But then, please revisit my first point.

3) Take breaks. Take walks. Step away from your screen sometimes and often.

4) We move forward one word/post/page/day at a time. Breaking a thing down into manageable pieces is essential. The big picture is so overwhelming—a whole book, a whole blog, a global pandemic. But if you just focus on the challenges and tasks immediately before you, you can do it.

We can do this!

As we move into a new season, I look forward to discovering new ways to rise to the occasion, to finding new solutions to the problems that arise, to realizing our own strength and resilience as we do.

Our species has travelled to the moon, guys.

So surely we’re up to the task of autumn.

Even in 2020.

Keep going. Look for the light.

August 27, 2020

Want, by Lynn Steger Strong

Lynn Steger Strong’s novel Want is packed with the same narrative tension that propelled one of my favourite books of last year, Helen Phillips’s The Need. Both of them, as is apparent from their titles, about desperate yearnings, longings, cravings, desires. For an escape hatch, for example, from the demands of motherhood, the feeding, rocking, soothing, waiting. For a way out of the trap of anxiety, a detour away from the trappings of modern life.

Want is less overtly weird, however. There is no sci-fi element, intruder in antlers, no parallel world. Or rather, the parallel world is the one that Elisabeth was promised, a child of affluent parents growing up on the 1980s and 1990s, pursuing her goals in academia, her husband leaving his job in the financial sector after the crash in 2008 to find more meaningful work in carpentry. They build a life in New York, underpinned by dreams and ideals, but it all falls to pieces. As the novel begins, they’re declaring bankruptcy, a process that began with medical and dental bills. She teaches one class at the university, and works 9-5 at a high school, one of those private academies of nightmares. She and her husband sleep in a closet in their Brooklyn apartment, and still can barely afford the rent. She awakes every morning at 4:30 to get the run in that’s so essential to her mental health, and in her downtime, she scrolls social media feeds for clues about the life of her former best friend, Sasha.

It’s not a conventional narrative. It builds and builds, but it also doesn’t, it just goes, the way a life does when you have to wake up at 4:30 every morning in a closet, when you work all day, and are up nursing most of the night. When you’re just barely hanging on, the way that Elisabeth and her husband are, and she keeps thinking back on her history with Sasha, the various ways they both betrayed each other. A story line also builds about allegations against another professor at the university, about Elisabeth’s somewhat agonizing relationship with her own mother, how the effects of a mental health breakdown years before linger still. Unremarked upon are her feelings towards her husband and children, and perhaps these are the only sure things she’s got going here. Everything else is shifting, tricky, impossible to navigate.

There is a sinister banality to Elisabeth’s experiences, one that touches on experiences of race, class and privilege, and there is also a murder, one most unconventional plot-wise, and how all the pieces of the story fit together in the end is the question. They kind of don’t—but also this is the point. Why this puzzle? Why these pieces? And what is the way out of the state that we’re in?

I loved this book.

August 27, 2020

Island Days

I didn’t move to Toronto until I was 19 years old, but there are parts of the city I’ve known all my life. My grandparents lived at Dundas and Greenwood, where my dad had grown up, and so I knew the park and the pool, the side street where we’d park with its NO BALL PLAYING signs. I know Simpsons, where we’d go to visit Santa at Christmas. The Skydome for baseball games, and the Exhibition Stadium before it. I knew Kew Gardens and the Beaches, and then as I got older, Queen Street became part of my personal geography too, my friends and I being driven downtown on the weekends to buy vintage jeans at the Black Market, buy chocolate chip cookies at the Second Cup on John Street, and peer in the windows at Much Music.

The Toronto Islands have always been a part of that geography though. It was an important place for my grandparents, and they took me there—I remember the extravagance of the ride-all-day wristband they bought me for the Centreville Amusement Park, which cost an entire $13. Another time we met our grandparents there after travelling to the islands in our boat, which we’d launched at Scarborough Bluffs, I think. It only happened once, as far as I can recall, but boating around the Toronto Island Lagoons was one of the most memorable experiences of my young life.

In university, I didn’t have much to do with the islands (apart from the obligatory boat cruise during frosh week) until my fourth year when I got a bike. Heading to the Hanlan’s Point nude beach that summer with two friends who were willing to indulge me, an experience that changed the way I see myself and my body forever. Another time that summer I ran away to the Island all by myself and nobody knew where I was, and there I sat on the beach with a copy of A Room of One’s Own, which I still have, and written on the inside cover is my name, and underneath in parentheses, “who is happy,” with the date, August 4 2001.

So many things about the island have stayed the same, apart from the cost of the wristband, and the way the beaches have shrunk due to erosion and encroaching water levels. Sometimes, loving the island brings profound sadness, at the inevitability of the land slipping away, of climate change and ever-change. But somethings seems eternal too about the place, its draw, being herded onto its iconic ferries.

Stuart and I went to the island on his first visit to to Toronto in 2003, and we got terrifically sunburned. It was the place we brought visitors to once we’d moved to the city ourselves. I celebrated my birthday on Ward’s Island in 2006 or 2007—friends waited in line for hours at the ferry docks because I didn’t have a cellphone then so they couldn’t call to cancel. We used to ride our bikes there, even though the uphill journey home at the end of an island day is the most exhausting trip in the world. We celebrated our three year wedding anniversary on the island in 2008, taking the ferry across after work on a Wednesday night, the most amazing indulgence.

And then we had a baby, and the island became a different kind of place. We stopped riding bikes, spent a lot more time lying under shady trees. We had another baby and the children grew, and Centre Island became important again. The wristband is not $13 anymore, but the amusement park remains cute and charming, not too much. We never buy the wristband, however, because I never want to stay for more than an hour or so.

Because there is so much else to explore! It was two years ago that we walked from Centre Island to Hanlan’s and I took my kids to the nude beach by accident—so many penises. They’re still traumatized. It was good swimming through, and I’ve also made them walk all the way across to Ward’s, where the beach is my favourite. We’ve had ice cream at the Island Cafe and dinners on the patio at the Rectory Cafe, and so many picnics on the green lawn just south of the ferry docks. (The best days involve picnics AND dinner on the patio. The objective of an island day is to stretch it out as long as possible…)

Yesterday we travelled to the island again, late August such a long time to wait for the first island trip of the summer, but it’s been a weird summer. A day spent on Ward’s Island with friends, a perfect spot on a not-so-crowded beach, and the water was beautiful, late-August warm, so clear and clean. The swimming was amazing, and the kids played, I read my book, we devoured fresh peaches, and everything was wonderful. The kind of perfect day only the island can make, and we felt so lucky to have it, and so grateful for everything as we made the familiar journey home.

August 26, 2020

Still Summer: Books on the Radio

Listen again to my books picks on CBC Ontario Morning! I come in at 33.00.

August 25, 2020

Gleanings

Do you like reading good things online and want to make sure you don’t miss a “Gleanings” post? Then sign up to receive “Gleanings” delivered to your inbox each week(ish). And if you’ve read something excellent that you think we ought to check out, share the link in a comment below.

August 24, 2020

20 K

There are people who get off on pushing limits, on the intensity of winning, overcoming. I am not one of those people, which is part of the reason my children could not ride bicycles for years. The other part of the reason why my children could not ride bicycles for years was that they were really bad at it, and we were even worse at trying to teach them. We tried everything, but once one knew how to do it, the other one was struggling, and finally what it took in the end was a pandemic, for the world to be brought to a halt and my husband to be so frustrated by our situation that he taught our youngest to ride in an afternoon and had everyone’s bikes tuned up and ready to go in a space of a week.

And so we ride bikes now, out for ice cream, to the Korean grocery store, to Dufferin Grove Park. So when my cousin called me out of the blue yesterday and suggested we meet at Humber Bay Shores, way out in the west end, I decided we would ride bikes to get there. According to Google Maps, it was fifteen minutes quicker than transit.

But, dear reader, Google Maps LIED. As we made our way down Shaw Street to King, it occurred to me that a return trip in the other direction was going to be hard work (the problem when your entire city is built on a subtle slope). And then when we got to King and realized that not only were there no bike lanes, but that idiots roared along in their stupid cars like the street was a racetrack, we joined our children on the sidewalk. And as Liberty Village turned into Parkdale, the sun grew hotter, and it was around Dufferin Avenue that somebody started to cry.

But by then it was too late to turn back, and there was still so far to go. Why is there no shade in Parkdale? Why had we decided to make this journey on the hottest day of the year? Would our children ever forgive us as they furiously pedalled on their tiny single speed bikes that they’ve both outgrown already? How were we ever going to get home again, I wondered, as we persisted, the lake getting closer. We pointed it out at our first glimpse of it, but the children were too tired to care.

There is a ramp on the other side of the Roncesvalles Pedestrian Bridge, and Iris sailed down it on her bike and ran right into a wall. I chased after her, flinging my own bike to the ground impeding traffic, and feeling like I was going to throw up once I had reached her, because I was already tired, and it was so very hot. (Cheers to the kind man at the Palais Royale who offered to refill our water bottles…)

On the other side of the bridge, we at least got to ride on the waterfront trail, and the Lakeshore was closed to traffic, so there was relief in that. But even from Sunnyside to Humber Bay Shores was so far, and as we approached the slope of the Humber Foot Bridge, we all felt ready to fall to pieces. Maybe we were just going to live at Humber Bay Shores forever, I decided, collapsed in a heap on the concrete.

Fortunately, we had come to Humber Bay Shores to see my cousin and her family, a cousin who has been one of my dearest friends forever, and once we’d recovered our breath and stopped sweating, we spent a delightful two hours with them, and no one ever would have suggested that the journey wasn’t worth it.

But how to get home?

I decided we would cycle home along the Martin Goodman Trail on the lakefront, taking our time (it took 3 hours), stopping often to stick our feet in wading pools, to collapse under shady trees, and eventually even to order takeout from a sushi place which we ate in the Toronto Music Garden. I bought my children orange crush, a staple of my childhood but a curious artifact in theirs, and they were so excited. They definitely earned it. And then after sushi, we cycled just a little bit further, to the streetcar stop that would take us and our bikes right up Spadina Avenue, depositing us at the end of our street.

Which was kind of cheating, but even still, we cycled 20 kilometres, and it was terrible and awful and fun and amazing, and we were so proud of ourselves, and we never, ever want to do it again.

August 21, 2020

Hamnet and Judith, by Maggie O’Farrell

For YEARS, I have had Maggie O’Farrell confused with the author Catherine O’Flynn, and also I once read another Maggie O’Farrell book (Instructions for a Heatwave) but forgot about it completely, so I wasn’t exactly primed to pick up her latest, Hamnet and Judith, especially since it’s set in the sixteenth century and is about Shakespeare. No thank you.

And yet?

Then I kept reading reviews about it, and I can’t recall exactly what swayed me, but it was something about the universality of the fiction, and the glowingness of all the raves. And so I bought the book when we were at Lighthouse Books last month, and I loved it so completely, reading it a few weeks later when we were camping at Bronte Creek.

Which was two weeks ago now, and this week has got away from me. It is 5:31 pm on a Friday as I write this and I have to go make diner, but first, I want to put down on the record that this is perhaps the finest book you’ll read this year. Oh, the writing! The sentences! The scene in the apple store, those pieces of fruit bop-bop-bopping on the shelves to a rhythm. The whole world so magnificently conjured, and yes, it was the universality. It doesn’t matter that this was Shakespeare’s family (in fact the bard himself is not even named), or the century where the story is set—there was an immediacy to the narrative that I so rarely experience in historical fiction. Perhaps because the story is written in the present tense, but it works, the people, the scenes, so alive, so achingly, complicatedly real. And yes, the heartache, for this is the story of a child who dies, and the family who must suffer this incalculable loss, and this universal. The unfathomability. The fear as well, for this is a story of plague, and it seemed especially resonant as I read it in the summer of 2020. And the chapter about how the plague arrived in Warwickshire, fleas, and beads, and ship cats, the way that one thing leads to another, how everything is connected.

A truly magical, and stunning read.

August 19, 2020

Gleanings


August 19, 2020

Cover Reveal

So pleased to share the beautiful cover for my novel Waiting for a Star to Fall, coming on October 27. The designer is Terri Nimmo and she’s done the most incredible job. The book is now available for pre-order as a paperback, ebook or audiobook. I hope you love it.

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Pre-Order my New Novel: Out October 27

Book Cover WAITING FOR A STAR TO FALL

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