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Pickle Me This

April 11, 2017

Coming Up

April 7, 2017

A Horse Named Steve, by Kelly Collier

Is there room in Canadian literature for another equine creature who’s got a couple of quirks? Which is to say, if you have a thing for roly-poly ponies, do you actually need a horse named Steve?

But you do! Because it turns out that A Horse Named Steve is a genus all onto itself.

The debut picture book by Kelly Collier, A Horse Name Steve (published by KidsCan Press, which just won North American Publisher of the Year at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair) is a fun, comics-inspired tale of an ordinary horse who wants to be exceptional. When he finds a gold horn lying around (as you do) he imagines an exceptional life lies before him now, but then when he gallops off to show the golden horn to his friends, things go ever so slightly…askew.

With the horn out of place, Steve’s colleague, Bob the Racoon, reports to him, “I don’t see a beautiful gold horn on your head. You are not exceptional.” Which comes as a shock, and poor Steve cries so hard he gets thirsty, and when he goes to get a drink, our little pseudo-Narcissist sees in his reflection that the gold horn is right there after all. It’s no use though, because horses are not so dextrous in this respect, and when he goes to fix his horn, Steve ends up falling in the water. “Poor Steve. He is hornless and drenched.”

The tragedy that has befallen him has a positive outcome though—turns out that Steve’s horn has started a thing-on-the-head mania amongst the forest creatures, and when he falls in the water and his horn gets lost…suddenly Steve is exceptional again. Turns out bare heads are where it’s at after all—”I love the natural look he’s got going,” says the rabbit, the other animals agreeing, “Very stylish. How does he do it?”

Surely there are lessons contained within about the importance of accepting one’s self, being an individual, blazing a path instead of following a path, etc. But the great charm of this book is that these ideas exist deep in the background while A Horse Named Steve manages to be exceptional in its own right—the simple drawings, the humour, the chatty asides that make reading the book aloud an absolute delight.

April 6, 2017

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, by Merilyn Simonds

Even if I wasn’t scheduled to be on a panel with Merilyn Simonds in Hamilton this weekend talking about digital storytelling (but I am! It’s gritLIT and you can buy tickets here. Tickets are also still available for my blogging workshop!) I would have picked up her new book, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, in a  heartbeat. Because it’s a beautiful hardcover book about books whose endpapers are to die for. And the story itself is a magnificent hybrid of memoir and non-fiction (“Did you know”, I kept imploring everybody who would listen, “that the invention of the spinning loom would lead to a surfeit of rags, which would help bring about a revolution in the production of paper? What a wondrous thing is that. How can you go about as a bookish person in the world without know that fact?”) about Simonds’ experience producing a book via old-fashioned letterpress while at the same time rendering a digital version.

This is not a book that bridges the digital/print divide, but instead a book that asserts that there is no such thing. Simonds was an early adopter of e-reading technologies and is savvy about and grateful for the possibilities these hold for writers and readers and alike, but she also knows that it’s not reason to throw the baby out with the library. “Why is it that we assume each new thing condemns what went before as obsolete? We know that’s not true. We can read a book, stream a Netflix movie, then listen to the radio as we drive to the opera, read a precis of the narrative on our iPads as we wait for a performance to begin./ We can have it all.”

I wrote all over this book, underlinings and paragraphs bracketed. It articulated so much of what I know as a booklover, and what I’ve learned in the last few months as I’ve become an author: “I’m just the writer. I used to think that was important, that the entire scaffolding of the publishing world was built on the foundation of the written word. Now that I am deep inside this architecture, I see that I’m just another two-by-four, doing my bit to keep the entire edifice from collapsing in a heap.”

Simonds takes her reader through the process of producing a book of short pieces for a small press in Kingston run by the inimitable Hugh Barclay. Along with the story of her own relationship to print, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint is about Barclay’s career as an “innovator” and how he found his way into a job designing wheelchairs and how that led to his ownership of a printing press and the advent of Thee Hellbox Press—sounds inevitable, right? The book is divided five main sections—Paper, Type, Ink, Press and Book—and Simonds outlines her experience at each stage of the process, along with fascinating historical context—like how rags led to paper, or how Koreans had come shockingly close to creating moveable type but the complexity of their alphabet kept them from doing so, or how books weren’t stood up on a shelf as we know them before the 1700s and instead lay on their sides with pages facing and the owner would write the title of the book on the page-side.

These rich details are what propels the plot forward, as does Simonds’ evident passion for the entire project and books in general, and, ultimately, the production of her book with Hugh. At the same time, she is busy creating a digital version of the book with her son, a designer, who is also tasked with creating the woodcuts for the print edition (and he has to create small icons of these for the e-book, because the technology doesn’t allow the prints to appear as shadows beneath the text the way that they can on paper). Learning about the ins and outs of the processes, print and digital, the ways in which they are similar and different, complementary and wholly foreign, was so illuminating.

For me, this book never misses a mark, which makes my favourite part of it seem a bit ironic. When Merilyn discovers a fingerprint faintly smudged on a corner of a page from her book, and worries they might have to go back a step in a slow and tedious process. But Hugh shrugs off her concern: “We’re not striving for perfection here. That fingerprint—that’s what makes this copy distinct. Human. It says, ‘Somebody printed this.'” Which is kind of the whole point.

April 5, 2017

Autumn, by Ali Smith

I am baffled by Ali Smith’s new novel, Autumn, but not in a  bad way. Not remotely. Whereas I found her previous book, the much acclaimed How To Be Both a bit much—it was long. It was also half-set in a world that’s not my own, which is one of my failures as a reader, that I am so much less engaged with literature that isn’t a reflection of my own circumstance. But Autumn is firmly set right now, give or take nine months or so. In the aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder and the Brexit vote in June, and just this general sense of undoingness and that the world is not quite what we knew it to be. Which is what I count on literature for, to make the pieces into something that tells a story. This is why I’ve never thought that literature should be that axe to shatter the frozen ice inside me or whatever, but more like a paddle to steer us to shore.

Smith’s character picks up a copy of A Tale of Two Cities, it was the best of times, it was worst of times…: “The words had acted like a charm. They’d released it all, in seconds. They’d made everything happening stand just far enough away. / It was nothing less than magic./ Who needs a passport?/ Who am I? Where am I? What am I?/ I’m reading.”

This too: “…whoever makes up the story makes up the world.”

And now you should read Laura Miller’s review of Autumn, which was most of the reason I picked up this book (and I was definitely not sorry.) 

April 4, 2017

Dear Pottery Barn Kids Sherway Gardens

Dear Pottery Barn Kids Sherway Gardens,

Thank you for following me on Instagram. You have over 1300 followers, which is no small potatoes, and you are an internationally known brand located in a very good mall, so I should be flattered. And you’ve not only followed me, but you’re engaging with my posts, sharing baguette-related humour and being all ’round pleasant and fun. I feel like you and I could be friends…except you are a store. And you’re not just a store, you are a store that I can’t afford to enter because in order to afford your merchandise, I’d have to move up at least two income brackets. Do you know that I bought my kids’ bunkbed out of an actual garage in an industrial park at Jane and Finch? If you knew that, would you unfollow me? I showed my children a photo of the bunkbed on your feed that was built to resemble a playhouse, and they both went a bit gaga. They said, “Mommy, could we go there?” By which we all knew they really meant, “Is it possible to have another kind of life?”

I don’t know how they do it, those people who “engage with brands on social media.” How do you engage with a brand? When they make a joke on your instagram post, do you respond with, “Ha ha that’s funny by the way you’re a store”? Don’t get me wrong, I like stores. If I could afford to buy the playhouse bunkbed I’d be all over that shit. If you were having a clearance sale, I could possibly come in and purchase a facecloth (but only one that was on deep discount because a customer had bought it and returned it and the packaging had gone missing and someone had actually washed their face with it). But I don’t know how to talk to you. Everything in your posts is literally wearing a price tag or from a catalogue. How do you engage with a floor model? I don’t know what you look like. Do you even have a face?

Does a store dream, Pottery Barn Kids Sherway Gardens? Do you have hopes and fears? Do you cower at night in the silence of your mall and worry about climate change? As yuppies and their offspring traipse their dirty boots across your carpets in the daytime, do you ever wonder about the point of it all? What’s your favourite book? Your favourite recipe? Have you ever suffered from sexual dysfunction? Do you like cilantro? The artificial flavour for banana? What’s your favourite season? Do you have economic anxiety? Are you a public company? Do you ever consider your responsibility to your shareholders and then get really scared?

I want to know you. I want to be your friend and celebrate your birthday, and maybe even buy you a cup of coffee—but I can’t. So close you are, but still a world away. But maybe one day I’ll come across your wares on Craigslist and snap up something—a storage solution or an organic duvet insert—and maybe then this arrangement will all make sense. Perhaps one day I will understand.

Yours respectfully,

Me.

April 4, 2017

A Handy Guide to Explaining Graphic Anti-Choice Public Transit Ads to Your Children

“How am I supposed to explain this to my children?” is a question many people are grappling with in my hometown right now, where the city failed to fight a campaign by a group of fetus enthusiasts to display graphic anti-choice images on the sides of busses. Images that, I will remind you, are enlarged hundreds of times beyond their actual size, because (as a young man campaigning “for life” in the street once affirmed for me) if you showed images of abortions at their actual size (also known as REALITY)  “they wouldn’t have any impact.” Which should give anyone pause…

But apparently not, because the ads are due to start running this week. As someone who has already talked about these ads with my children, however, I have wisdom to impart here which might be relevant to other parents. This is how I gave them the lay of the anti-choice land.

  1. A lot of things happen to women in their lives, I tell them. A lot of women have babies. And many women who want to have babies end up having their babies die before they are born, often for no reason that anyone can discern. And other women who want babies find out far into their pregnancies that their babies are not growing properly and they make the decisions to end their pregnancies—which is a painful, agonizing choice to have to make and leave families sad for a very long time. Other women find out they are pregnant when they don’t want to be, and these women can also make the choice to end their pregnancies, and sometimes this is sad and sometimes it isn’t.
  2. And then I remind them that the fact that women get to make choices about their own bodies makes a lot of people really angry. Sometimes those people are men and sometimes they are women. Sometimes they are people who themselves have lost babies they desperately wanted, which has left them unable to understand that their situation does not apply to everyone, that restricting someone else’s choice isn’t going to make their own loss any less. (And some of these people are pro-life dude-bro’s who are in their early 20s and as ridiculously empowered as they are ignorant about women’s lives and experiences. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be pro-life dude-bro’s.)
  3. “A lot of people are huge assholes,” I remind my children. We see evidence of this everywhere. We try to love the world and humanity anyway, however. It is an ongoing project.
  4. And these huge assholes, I tell my children, have no problem with taking these intimate, personal, complicated experiences of women’s lives and driving them around town on the side of a bus via wholly misleading images. They have either not paused to reflect on or do not care in the slightest about how these images are as violent and cruel as they are misleading. On what it might mean to be coming home from the ER after realizing you are miscarrying and seeing that bus drive by you. Or even worse, when you’re waiting at the bus stop as you are miscarrying, and that’s the bus that pulls up. Public transit is not frequent enough in my hometown that you could just sit down and wait for the next one. I tell my children that the people who’ve placed these ads have not bothered to put themselves in that woman’s place, or the place of her partner, her children, all those people who know how complicated women’s health and women’s lives can be. I tell my children, Don’t be these people. I tell them there is such a thing as empathy. I tell my children: “In your lives, be better than that.”
  5. I tell them, “You know the problem, the reason these ads have happened at all and the reason people are able to rest afloat on the seas of their own ignorance, is that we don’t talk about abortion enough. A person lacking in curiosity might think that these aren’t issues that have affected nearly everyone. So in a way, even though the images are gross and fake, they give us cause to be grateful. Here we are talking about it. A good moment to remind you, my daughter, that your body—and the choice of what to do with it—is your own.”

April 2, 2017

Nine Years at Home

Nine years ago yesterday we moved here, the first day of April after a disastrous winter but then it never snowed again. “It’s always spring at our new house,” I remember thinking. There was mail waiting for us in the mailbox when we pulled up with the moving truck. A few days later we were awakened in the middle of the night by a digger out in the street carting away the snowbanks. I never knew such things were artificial, that the world could be arranged. But the fact that we’d moved at all was testament to the latter point. Before we moved here, every house we’d ever had had come to us via somebody else. Our old place in Little Italy had been my cousins’, and we’d lived in our friends’ old place in Japan, and company accommodation before that. But this apartment was the first home we’d ever been deliberate about. I found it online and it checked all of our boxes, except it had hideous carpets instead of hardwood floors. I remember how the sunshine poured into our old apartment that had hardwood floors on our last day there as we packed up the last few boxes (which ended up taking nine hours) and listening to Panic at the Disco and Sam Sparro. That night we slept on a mattress on the floor, and the movers would arrive in the morning. We were on the cusp of everything, and so excited to arrive.

Of course, we weren’t always sure. The day we moved in, our place was filthy and there was a box of rat poison in the bathroom—never a good omen. The drawers in the kitchen were filled with other people’s cutlery. Stuart and I ate pizza on the hideous carpet that night (which is the same hideous carpet I’m lying on now as I write this post) and he wasn’t sure at all, and so I had to pretend that I really was. It would turn out the the rat poison was for mice though, which is the sort of thing one expects in an old house downtown, and eventually I got the kitchen cleaned out. We painted the walls and hung our pictures upon them. I’ve written before about how we made a conscious decision to not buy a house, but how we were still in search of a home and that this would be the place. And living here has made so much possible for us.

Our apartment is in a great school district—who knew? I certainly didn’t in 2008 when our children were still strictly hypothetical. And this is the only home they’ve ever known, which has been scene to birthday parties, playdates, tantrums, and projectile vomiting. They’re wholly accustomed to the mildew in the bathroom, which has probably given them immune systems beyond compare. When they go to bed at night, the house is quiet, and it’s almost like it’s just the two us still, except for the plastic tubs of lego and the tiny table heaped with artwork. Nine years seems like a long time ago—the longest I’ve lived almost anywhere—but wasn’t it also five minutes ago? How is a person expected to keep such things straight?

Our house is weird, and not all of that is “charming”—although some of it is. There are rooms with wood trim that does not manage to go all the way around the room’s perimeter. There is an actual gap between the doors in the kitchen that means when you sit on one side of the table in the winter, you’re forced to contend with being on the windy side. Our oven is so small that you can only put two things inside it at once—and most of the time the pans don’t fit all the way and so I bake with the oven door partway open. The upstairs sink fell off the wall once while I was washing my feet in it. And the fact of that hideous carpet, which has not become any less hideous with time (although once we had children, we realized that attractive flooring was overrated).

But there are fairy doors, and a doorframe where two little girls’ height has been tracked, and big windows you can see the sky from, and the shade of a big tree that gives us gifts all spring and summer and well into fall. There is the chestnut tree out front where we get conkers. There are gorgeous tiles in the kitchen, and things to string bunting from, and a backyard where you can draw with chalk on the bricks and where my book club meets in summer, and where we get together with friends for epic barbecues. I’ve made two books here, and Stuart has honed his skills as a designer, and I remember him saying something once he’d calmed down about the potential rats, that there was something here that fostered creativity. Our houseplants lived a little bit longer than usual. There was something in the air.

There is a key that hangs outside on a rusty nail at the bottom of our staircase. I walk past it at least twice a day, but it took a long time for me to even notice it. “What’s the key for?” someone asked—perhaps our former downstairs neighbour. Nobody knew, but it’s been there forever. A curious thing—a very public spot for something that’s locked. What’s the point of a key that everyone has access to? It’s kind of emblematic of this place, its quirks and mysteries and possibilities, and the stories of all the people who’ve lived here before us. It’s emblematic of faith as well, which is the thing that brought us here. And so we keep the key hanging there, on the off-chance that one day we’ll need it.

March 31, 2017

The Everywhere Bear, by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb

My favourite Julia Donaldson is Julia Donaldson with Rebecca Cobb in The Paperdolls (even if I do have to add in that the little girl in the book grew up to become a particle physicist, a politician and an opera singer, as well as “a mother,” because let’s remind our children that a person can be very well rounded), so I was delighted to see their latest collaboration, The Everywhere Bear. Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie don’t make an appearance, but we’ve got Ollie and Holly and Josie and Jay, Leo and Theo and April and May, etc. etc. All members of a classroom whose class bear comes along with the children on various adventures, but then one weekend things go amiss the bear gets lost, embarking on a remarkable journey of his home that will bring him home again. “Hooray! Hooray!” cheer my children at the end of books like these. “Nobody dies!” They will not tolerate an unhappy ending—even the paper dolls’ snipped up fate makes them a bit uneasy, but we all love this one, Donaldson’s bouncy rhyme and Cobb’s adorable round faces. A keeper for sure.

March 29, 2017

I love love love Workin’ Moms

Much like a certain recent US presidential candidate you may recall, the CBC television series Workin’ Moms is not a perfect candidate. There are some obligatory awkward Canadian production moments (Dan Ackroyd notwithstanding; his casting was brilliant); mild implausibility (how do the workin’ moms manage to fit a mommy’s group into their workdays?); and wardrobe decisions I didn’t blink at but that drove my actual workin’ mom friends berserk—apparently sleeves in the office are pretty much de riguere? Who knew. But over the first season of the show it’s become clear to me that perfection was never what the shows creators were striving for. They put a wandering kodiak bear in the pilot, for heaven’s sake. And it was that bear, or rather character Kate’s response to it, that had me hooked, her serious, furious primal scream. In that powerful moment we were witnessing a mother being born.

The show’s frequent comparisons to HBO’s Girls are not amiss in that neither is a series about women in general, which keeps tripping viewers up “because we’re still more comfortable seeing women as universal types rather than distinct individuals.” If women in general get this treatment, then mothers get it doubly, and the creators of Workin’ Moms are actively working against those expectations of who mothers are and what they should be. In fact, they’re working against all expectations, hence the kodiak bear.

From the start, here is what I loved about the series: first, that the characters aren’t foils. They’re people. That they aren’t having existential crises about matters most people really do manage to work out in reality if not on TV—like, “Oh my god, can I be a mom AND a person?” “Is it okay that I really like my job more than I like taking care of my baby?” “Is it simply inexcusable to admit that I find devoting my entire self to motherhood is more than a bit unfulfilling?” I mean, these are questions the characters in the show are working through, but it’s the process that matters—it’s not as though entire plot points hang upon them. I also like that the workin’ moms’ partners (who are dads, but for one exception) are generally decent human beings. Making dads look dumb is really stupid comedy, and this show is much too smart for that.

I knew I loved the show in the first episode when Frankie started fantasizing about being hit by a bus. She doesn’t want to die, she explains, but how she’d love to go into a coma for eight weeks or so. Later we see her with her head stuck under water in the house she’s showing for a sale. Soon after, she kinda sorta slips under water in the bathtub with her baby daughter—only just caught by her partner. She’s fallen asleep, she claims. A tiny slip. Enough to make the viewer very uncomfortable, which the series never fears to do.

Another character whose trajectory messed me up was Jenny, who headed back to her IT job reluctantly while her husband embraced his time as a stay-at-home dad, and thereby became completely unappealing to her, sexually and otherwise. She starts having weird fantasies about her nerdy manager, and leaving provocative messages on his Facebook page. Alienated from her roles as mother and wife, she starts acting out in outlandish ways, most memorably on the girls’ night out when she demands someone pierce her nipple, which squirts milk at the moment of laceration. Predictably, the nipple gets infected.

I loved Anne, who’s struggling with her older daughter (oh my gosh, when she starts wondering if there’s a slut gene and she’s passed it onto her) and a young baby when she realizes she’s pregnant again. This accidental pregnancy does not come as good news, and she struggles with facing it in her characteristically blunt style—”You’re angrier than usual, Anne,” the leader of the mommies group remarks to her. The group in general in general is a bit put off by the fact that Anne keeps bringing up that she’s considering an abortion. Which is kind of sacrilege in a room full of babies.

And then yes, the abortion. It’s long been a complaint of mine not just that abortions aren’t shown on TV very often, but particularly that nobody ever gets to make jokes about them. (I actually have a long term aspiration to become an abortion humorist.)  Workin’ Moms going against the grain again as Anne’s friend Kate (who’s played by show creator Catherine Reitman) cracks this one as she’s driving Anne to a clinic and they’re considering whether you’d Yelp an abortion clinic based on ratings or proximity. Ratings, definitely, Kate figures, and then she takes it further: “I wonder what kinds of complaints an abortion clinic gets? One star. Still pregnant.”

And Kate, my favourite. All life in the city—she’s glorying in the beauty of the day in the park with her son as a vagrants’ pissing against a tree. Sardonic, bad-assed and unapologetic—particularly about her lack of sleeves. Her story throughout the series involves her return to work at a PR firm where she’s firmly established as successful, but she finds she has to redefine her professional role at work now that she’s a mother. Further, she’s a candidate for a prestigious position in Montreal, which would involve leaving her husband and son for three months. Is this something she’s willing to partake in for professional success? (Spoiler: in Tuesday’s episode we see her glorying in her clean white bed, alone, a full night’s sleep, and not a single soul to breastfeed. As any mother knows, there’s not drug in the world as incredible as solitude—but it’s also possible to get too much of a good thing.)

At the beginning of the show in January, Workin’ Moms received a terrible review from John Doyle in the Globe and Mail who chastised the show for its characters’ entitlement. “Oddly, to me, Workin’ Moms celebrates what was mocked with deft scorn by the Baroness Von Sketch series and the Canadian comedy Sunnyside. So, whose side are we supposed to be on? If it’s these appallingly smug people, heaven help us all.” But what the review only proves is that John Doyle doesn’t get it—it’s never been about sides. And what’s remarkable about Baroness Von Sketch and Workin’ Moms alike is that nobody is pitted against no one. Not unless, of course, there’s a very good reason…

In her celebration of Baroness Von Sketch, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer writes of how the show “celebrates and spoofs the mundane realities in which modern, urban women find themselves depicted. And oh, how the Baronesses know the contours of the boxes in which we live. They have it mapped out like diligent and transgressive draughtswomen who, instead of yielding to the airtight edges of their inherited designs, work to erase them.” And I would argue that Workin’ Moms is a similar kind of project. More subtly though—this isn’t sketch comedy after all. And because it isn’t, the show has to develop in-depth female characters with sustained narratives, and some people hate that. Remember that flawed candidate I started this post with?

Workin’ Moms isn’t perfect, but it never wanted to be—which is the reason it manages to be transgressive, hilarious and discomforting all at once. And it doesn’t fucking care if you don’t like it, which is why I loved it.

The series finale airs next week, but you can watch the whole thing online.

March 29, 2017

Talking Canada Reads on the Radio

Today I got to talk about my favourite Canada Reads contenders from days of yore on CBC Ontario Morning. If you missed me on the radio, you can listen again on the podcast. I come in at 41.00.

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