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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.

March 28, 2017

Mitzi Bytes in the World this Week

This week the “Mitzi Bytes in the world” distinction is literal. As per the photos below, Mitzi has been to Moscow, Paris, Jamaica, and Disney World. I have it on good authority that she makes for good poolside reading—and thank you to everybody who’s sharing their photos. The week’s big excitement was an appearance on Global TV’s morning show, which was as delightful as the clip makes it seem. I got to talk about blogging’s epistolary roots on television, and they asked questions about Harriet the Spy. It was amazing. This week, Mitzi Bytes was also the featured read on The Savvy Reader, which came with this serious endorsement. I love it. And I got to attend Blue Heron Books‘ Books and Brunch Series on Sunday, which apparently was the most raucous event they’ve ever had. So glad to be part of the raucous—we had so much fun.

This week, things are a bit quiet, but I’m looking forward to reading at the Pivot Reading Series on April 5 and then attending GritLit in Hamilton on April 8, where I will be participating in a panel with Merilyn Simonds on in the afternoon and teaching a blogging workshop at 5pm. It’s going to be great.

March 27, 2017

Barrelling Forward, by Eva Crocker

I can’t help it, I need to read a short story collection like a novel. By “like a novel” I mean “like a book,” compelled to keep turning the pages. While I admire those who can dip in and out of a collection, read a story at a time, I’ve come to accept that in general, I’m never going to be that guy. If we’re speaking in terms of appetites and birds, when it comes to books I’m a raven. Which means I appreciate a short story collection like Eva Crocker’s debut, Barrelling Forward, whose momentum is suggested by its title.

The first story is “Dealing With Infestation” about a young teacher whose apartment is freezing and infested with something that’s left him itchy with a rash, when he embarks upon an ill-advised foray with his gym-teacher colleague. In “Auditioning,” a set of teenage twins are trying to get gigs acting in commercials, and one must resort to desperate measures to register her distaste with the whole exercise. In “Full-Body Experience,” an exercise instructor tries to get over the death of her sorta-boyfriend in a car accident. “Serving” is from the perspective of a father (middle-age man who works as a server in a family restaurant) and his teenage son, about the father’s innocent (?) relationship with a co-worker, and his colonoscopy. Work and family similarly intertwine in “All Set Up,” about a young father who waffles between contentment with his domestic situation and yearning for more. In “The Landlord,” a young waitress pushes the line about how far she’d go in order to avoid being evicted from her apartment. “Lucky Ones” is a tale of lottery tickets and Sherry, who’s taking care of her boyfriend’s baby while he works the night shift.

Eva Crocker’s stories of work and family life are reflective of modern realities, but underlined by more traditional notions of breadwinning and family structure, her characters are getting stuck in the gaps between these, sometimes perilously. All of these characters are gambling something, still hoping their ship will come in, which keeps the stories buoyant instead of bleak. And while not all the stories are equally successful, and this will be the kind of book that will frustrate you if you’re the type who disdains short stories for ending too soon, it’s a debut that positively sparkles with talent. Here’s hoping Crocker’s career achieves similar momentum as well.

March 24, 2017

Town is by the Sea, by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith

Never has a book so literally sparkled like Town is by the Sea, a new collaboration by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith. In the story, Schwartz draws on her own Cape Breton background to tell the story of a day in the life of a coal mining town, about the life that goes on up above while the men are working down below.

And in a book about contrasts, illustrator Smith pulls off a similar feat. As his early books (reissues of Sheree Fitch’s classics are where we first saw his work!) were fun and cartoonish, that same sensibility charges many of the images in this book—illustrations of domestic life and children at play. (He also exhibits a fixation on teacups that won this book a firm place in my heart.) But the teacups aren’t all of it—just wait for a moment.

Because first we see the men going down into the mines to work. (My children are fascinated by this. “What is coal?” Iris asks us, which is weird because usually she manages to parse out meanings, is rarely moved to ask about something so explicitly.)

“When I wake up, it goes like this—” Schwartz’s story starts, and this pattern sets up the way that the boy in the book will tell his story. First he hears seagulls, and then a dog barks. “And along the road, lupines and Queen Anne’s lace rustle in the wind…”

“And deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal.”

And now here it is, that sea. A sea so sparkling that it appears animated, an image that would not look out of place in a museum. Hasn’t it got a bit of the Monet about it? Otherworldly. Which is fitting.

Meanwhile, the boy plays with his friends, he walks through town. He goes home for lunch, then goes back out again. The sea is perpetually present, and its evocation brings us back to the men in the mines. “And deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal,” and my children read along with the refrain. But the last time we see the men, something is different.

The text doesn’t allude to the image of the men escaping some kind of collapse underground, and the sing-song story goes along, but what happens next in the illustrations takes on a particular subtext, a wordless story like the one Smith tells in JonArno Lawson’s award-winning Sidewalk Flowers*. The boy goes to visit his grandfather’s gravestone, his grandfather who was a miner just like his father, and who made sure that he’d be buried facing the sea because he’d spent enough time underground. “I go to the graveyard to visit my grandfather, my father’s father. He was a miner too. The air smells like salt. I can taste it on my tongue.”

The trouble underground and the imagery of death will make for some uneasy for reading for those of us who know the dangers of coal mining, who’ve heard the stories of disasters. But alas, that is a story for another day. In this book, the boy’s father comes home. Danger and peril, and it’s still just an ordinary day.

“One day it will be my turn,” the boy tells us, about the men who go down below to mine for coal. “I’m a miner’s son. In my town, that’s the way it goes.”

*Full credit goes to my husband Stuart who is much better at reading picture books than I am. It took me ages to figure out that the bear had eaten the rabbit in I Want My Hat Back, or what was different at the end of Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. I might have read this book a hundred more times without realize the enormity of what’s really going on beneath the surface (see what I did there?) so I am glad that I keep someone very clever around.

March 23, 2017

The Mother of All Questions, by Rebecca Solnit

“There is no good answer to how to be a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.” —Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions

Do you remember where you were when you discovered Rebecca Solnit? I do—I was listening to The Sunday Edition on CBC and she was talking about her book, The Faraway Nearby, a book that had a line of prose running throughout the bottom of every page. I read The Faraway Nearby, and fell in love with it, writing this effusive response. This was in 2013. In 2013, we still didn’t know that the world would fall apart and that I’d come to rely on Rebecca Solnit so much to put the pieces back together.

Solnit started particularly steeping in the zeitgeist with her 2012 essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” which lead to the term “mansplaining” although she’s far too elegant a writer to have invented it. The essay was part of a collection of the same name on feminism that was published in 2014, which was the same year that many of the essays in her latest, The Mother of All Questions, were written. “I’ve been waiting all my life forget what 2014 has brought,” her essay, “An Insurrectionary Year” begins, about that “watershed year” in which conversations about rape and sexual violence started changing. It seems like a long time ago now.

There is a Rebecca Solnit book for every moment—and sometimes for two of them. Her collection of essays Hope in the Dark was first published 2004 in light of George Bush’s re-election and the American invasion in Iraq in spite of global demonstrations for peace the likes of which had never been seen before. After the 2016 US election, the book was reprinted and I read it with such gratitude—it gave me comfort. I was reading it as we marched on January 21, and it made me feel buoyant for the first time in months. It indeed brought me hope, and perspective. There have been hard times before, activism is always a process, it’s always too soon to go home, and that you never know what effects your actions will achieve. There are grounds for hope. It’s a reason to bother.

The Mother of All Questions is another book about feminism, although it reads less triumphantly than such a book might have a short time ago. Before the patriarchy saw fit to elect an incompetent sexual predator to its highest office, because the alternative was a smart and qualified woman who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. They sure showed her though, and all of us, where we’re at in terms of gender politics and equality. It is true that with the elections all my illusions about feminism and progress went kaput, and I’ve been functioning in a  state of perpetual heartbreak ever since then. To think I’ve been raising my daughters to have a voice and to take for granted that their ideas and input would be valued by the world—what was I even thinking?

The ideas Solnit takes on here involve silences: “Being unable to tell your story is a living death and sometimes a literal one.” She writes about the people who weren’t permitted to speak, and the tales that weren’t allowed to be told. She writes about the men who are silenced by patriarchal forces, from being themselves, telling their own stories. She writes about rape, consent, domestic violence. She writes about the silence that occurs because no one is listening. About new and difficult conversations that have started to happen in the last twenty years or so, attempts to reconcile the unreconcilable (and the backlash). Most of these essays have appeared elsewhere and I’ve read a few of them, but it does me good to read them here assembled all together. There are many ways that I process the world, but reading Rebecca Solnit is a very important one of them. It’s true, I don’t read for her interrogation. I read her for comfort. Wanting comfort is not such a terrible thing.

However. “All your faves are problematic,” somebody tweeted last week, possibly in response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments about transwomen. And it’s true, and Adichie’s comments were ignorant and she’s not the spokesperson for every single living thing, but I’m not sure there is anybody who isn’t problematic. Remember the year we had to keep quiet about our admiration for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton because she too had failed to be perfect? And I went along with that. It was a silence. To admit one’s lack of socialist principles, and her Iraq war vote. She was the establishment, and there was Wall Street. She wasn’t even cool. Similarly, I had go to keep my excitement about Caitlin Moran’s new book on the downlow because she was racist and ignorant in a tweet in 2011. Which was problematic. But everybody is problematic. (It also seems that there is nothing more problematic than a woman being popular. Or in particular being popular with other woman. If too many women like you, then you’ve suddenly lost all your cred.)

I think we need to give women the space to be problematic though. I think we have let our feminist heroes cause trouble, and be wrong, and not even to atone if they don’t want to. We need to let people complicate things. We need to let others rail against it. That’s how progress happens. That’s how truth emerges. Uncertainty is okay, containers are porous. And I keep returning to the quote I started this essay with, “There is no good answer to how to be a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.” Rebecca Solnit keeps refusing it admirably.

March 20, 2017

Mitzi Bytes in the World this Week

The neat thing about Mitzi Bytes in the world this week is that Mitzi Bytes is actually in the world this week! The book launched on Tuesday, whose highlights were the appearance of an excellent review in Quill and Quire (“The novel’s cover makes it seem like a light read–and it is fun… At the same time, though, Clare makes us rethink what it means to be a mother, daughter, husband, and friend, and places the book directly within the current conversation about parenting in the 21st century.”) and an appearance on CBC Here and Now. I am also particularly proud of this review by Rohan Maitzen, who is a critic I admire immensely. On Thursday, we had our launch party here in Toronto, which was sponsored by the Toronto Lit Up Program via IFOA and the Toronto Arts Council. It was a terrific evening, and I got to read the ventriloquist sex scene, so that was amazing. It was so nice to have so many friends there and celebrate properly, and sign many many books. So grateful to Ben McNally Books for hosting us!

On Saturday Mitzi Bytes received the best imaginable review possible in the Toronto Star, which concluded with “Entertaining, engaging and timely, Mitzi Bytes is a pleasure to read from start to finish. It heralds the arrival of a fantastic, fun new novelist on the Canadian scene.” So THAT was nice. (!!!!) And then we were off to Peterborough for a hometown launch at Hunter Street Books, and we sold all the books. Which I can’t take much credit for, really. It just turns out that I am the child of incredible networkers (and very proud parents!) who invited everyone they’d even known to the launch and are well-liked enough that the people even came. I am so grateful to everyone who was there, and glad we had very cool Mitzi Bytes cookies for everybody. It was a really fun event, and great to see old friends and hang out in Michelle Berry’s wonderful shop. It was a grey and gloomy day, but the inside bookstore was so bright.

PS It was nice to read reviews from the HCCFirstLook program. I am grateful to these great readers for talking about the book.

March 19, 2017

So Much Love, by Rebecca Rosenblum

My friend Rebecca Rosenblum’s third book and debut novel So Much Love launched on the same day my book did last week, although I’d picked up a copy (from Indigo’s “New and Hot Fiction” table) two days before. I’d read it years ago in manuscript form and really liked it, and it was to my great joy to discover as I read the book last week that everything I remember loving about the first version—lines and scenes and settings—were still there, but that all the pieces of the story had been pulled together into a beautiful package that reads as seamless. It’s an incredible book, about the disappearance of a young woman and the devastation her absence leaves, and we also hear from the woman as well, and from a poet who’d been murdered in an act of domestic violence years before in a story with strange parallels to the central story. But not so many parallels—maybe vague connections are a better descriptor. Because to say there were parallels suggests that two characters’ stories might be alike, or that the the people who populate the novel are anything like types, because they’re not. And that’s so remarkable. The specificity with which the novel’s characters are evoked, every single one of them. I am awed by how Rebecca manages to imagine a 50-year-old male college professor reflecting on decades of marriage, a single mother desperate at her grown daughter’s absence, a kidnapper, a waitress, a poet, a builder. Each of them so stunningly realized—it’s magic. Sometimes the characters are so singular that it makes me wonder why—Catherine Reindeer, mature student, married young, works as a waitress, taking just one class a semester because she’s determined to avoid student debt. Which comes full circle, because, why? Because that’s who she is. These people are alive, and their city has its specific geography, and they all have their histories, and not all of it is delineated, but it’s there. We know it’s there. The whole novel was so enveloping, which is what hooked me, even though this is not a novel you’d call “deftly plotted” or “chockfull of suspense.” Which is not to say it’s boring or slow, but it more cerebral. It’s a novel whose atmosphere the reader steeps in rather than races through, and I loved that. Even though it wasn’t always easy—Rebecca avoids sensationalizing violence and only alludes to the worst bits, but it’s all very emotional wrought. There is so much sadness…and yet. And the title then, the so much love. Which is, of course, the whole point.

I loved this book. It’s an incredible achievement. I’m so proud of my friend.

March 17, 2017

You Are Three, by Sara O’Leary and Karen Klassen

Three is a good age, is a thing that someone said to me today, and it might have been the first time I ever heard that. I cocked my head. “Oh, really?” Although she was talking about her grandchild and maybe three is a good age if the child is only yours on a partial basis. For the rest of us though, three is a battle. Three is ferocious, still wakes you up at night and no longer naps. Three has more complex needs, and will still bite you in a pinch. Three is strong and tenacious and refuses to give in, and can whine and whine until the sun goes down. And keep on whining.

And yet. Three is also sturdy legs that can walk long distances with no complaints. Yes, three will point to your stomach and remind you that you look like you’re having a baby, but three will also whisper in your ear that you look like a princess. You never even knew you desired to look like a princess, but you are satisfied. Three tells stories about her friends at school, and eats everything in her lunchbox even though she never eats at home. She loves cats, but only if they are pink. Three likes to read chapter books because her big sister reads chapter books, and she picks sparkly ones out at the library with fairies on the cover, and she sits alone thumbing the pictureless pages and you wonder what she sees.

So yes, three has been a good year, even though three is hard and stubborn and still screams when you are unable to conjure impossible things. Three will howl for blocks and blocks or run away from you in a crowded subway station just to demonstrate how much she doesn’t want to hold your hand. But three will also sit at the table, most of the time. She will tell jokes and contribute to discussions and ask questions and point out things you never would have noticed on your own. With a three-year-old, you are a family, instead of three people and a baby. Your seven-year-old will say to you, “It’s really great to have a sister you can talk to.” And you will only be partially totally confused about what exactly she means.

(My favourite thing in the world is listening to my three-year-old singing along to songs that my seven-year-old is making up on the spot.)

Three is a good age, because it means we no longer have a baby. We never wanted another another baby after we had our last one, and I don’t lament the end of the baby years. My baby is heading off to kindergarten in the fall and I am fine with that. This is why we had babies anyway; the babies were what we had to go through to get the kids. And we love the kids. We toss the baby stuff out to the curb and cheer, and have filled all that space with camping equipment.

And so I was surprised to be moved by You Are Three, the final book in Sara O’Leary and Karen Klaassen’s trilogy celebrating the milestones of toddlerhood. Flipping through the pages the other night, I felt a bit emotional. Because three is a cusp, about to unfurl. Three is a person’s threshold to the world, and while I’m ready to usher my little person through the door, it’s easy to forget the moment we’re in. This funny girl will never again be so funny, or at least not funny in the same way. The You Are Three book reminds us to notice where we are right now: the kid who rides a scooter, carries her umbrella, and loves to hide. Her incredible worlds of make-believe, and her pictures, and the ways she sings her ABCs. “You are still our baby/ but you are also your own person./ We love to hold you close/ and we love to watch you run.”

March 16, 2017

Tonight!

March 15, 2017

Revisiting Booky

Harriet and her Brownie group served dinner to a group of homeless and impoverished young people at a local church a few weeks ago, which taught us an essential truth about the face of poverty, which is that it has many faces, people with all kinds of different stories, and people with children and babies. None of the girls could quite get over that—that there had been a baby. Though of course it was the baby’s table everyone wanted to serve at, but even the people who weren’t babies were really nice and everyone was friendly and polite. And then we came home and picked up another chapter of That Scatterbrain Booky, by Bernice Thurman Hunter, a novel we’d been reading together over the past few weeks.

Hunter’s Booky series and her Margaret books had been huge for me growing up, as both a reader and a writer, although until I picked the novel up again and realized how much the stories were now built into my literary DNA, I hadn’t given them that much credit. The series is not exactly unsung—a Booky film was made starring Meaghan Follows about ten years ago, titles are still in print—but there were no copies for sale in the bookstore I was in the other day. And you don’t hear writers talking about Booky, the same way they talk about Anne or Emily, or Alice or even Harriet and Ramona—although a few years back Carrie Snyder included the Booky books on a list of titles that inspired her as a young writer.

One Saturday night though, so happy to be rereading the book and impressed to find that it was such a strong and powerful literary work (which is a thing you discover quickly when you’re reading out loud) I posted a photo of the cover on Instagram. And then my Instagram feed went bonkers. Everyone remembered Booky. Everyone loved Booky. Grown men professing their love for the Booky books and memories of Hunter visiting their school libraries in the 1980s. Everyone had Booky memories to share, the vivid scenes still resonant. There’s something about these books, and all its avid readers should look into revisiting them as an adult.

Because they’re really good. This incredibly strong but chatty first-person narrator who pulls in close and focuses on details (the warmth from the stove on the streetcar as passenger huddled around it, the stripes on the sweaters from the Toronto Star Christmas boxes which the kid who wore them got mocked for, the exact contents of a bag of penny candy) but then pulls out too with a broader perspective (“grandpa would only live three years after that…”) and shows the reader that these are stories told with the benefit of hindsight. The deftness with which Hunter maneuvered this was so impressive, but so too is the story’s gritty edges, which never detract from its buoyant tone. In fact as a young reader I never noticed, but they’re there. Booky’s family can barely support the children they have and (although nobody knows yet) another’s on the way, and she overhears her parents discussing the possibility of her parents giving this baby up for adoption. Strung across the entrance to High Park is a sign announcing that the park is “Gentiles Only.” When Booky’s dad finally finds work as a maintenance man at the chocolate factory, it’s only after the previous holder of that titled has been fatally injured in an industrial accident. Throughout the entire book, the family is this close to being evicted and at one point they actually are. And although the fact of it is breezed by, Booky is severely malnourished and therefore eligible for free milk at school. When her family sits down together at the table, often her parents eat nothing.

So this is far from the Old Toronto nostalgic days-gone-by kinds of stories I remembered Booky for, the kinds of stories Kamal Al Solaylee warned us about in his essay “What You Don’t See When You Look Back.” Although like those sepia-toned images, there aren’t people of colour in Booky’s stories, but they are just outside the frame. And the bygone days are not made sweet in their memory—these were hard times, and people suffered mercilessly. In the ways that so many still do.

By which I mean that when we read Booky the night after serving dinner at the church, the bygone days didn’t seem so bygone after all.

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