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April 30, 2020

Catching Up with THE M WORD

Last week, I was asked to blurb a memoir that’s coming out this September, and I was happy to say yes to this request, though I always have trouble reading books that aren’t actual books yet, and especially when they’re digital, because I’d have to read on my phone, and who wants to do that. But this book. Which I received on Friday and had finished by Monday night. On my stupid phone. Do you know what an endorsement that is?

The book is How to Lose Everything, by Christa Couture, and it’s a story that sparkles and sings. A story for anyone who would like to consider ways to find grace and keep going in the face of a hopeless situation. Amazingly, it’s also a book that was born out of the essay that Christa published six years ago in The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood. What amazing seeds that book has planted!

Which made me consider all the remarkable things that contributors to The M Word have been up to in the years since the book was published. I continue to be bowled over with gratitude to all the women who contributed to our project, and want to celebrate what some of them have been recently been up to literary-wise.

But first, I want to note the death of Priscila Uppal in September 2018. Uppal’s essay was “Footnote to the Poem “Now That All My Friends Are Having Babies: A Thirties Lament,” and it was funny, brutal, honest, and necessary. I am still so honoured that her work was a part of our collection.

  • Heather Birrell’s latest book is the poetry collection, Float and Scurry, which has been shortlisted for the 2020 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award
  • Christa Couture has just released her fifth album, Safe Harbour. Her memoir How to Lose Everything will be published in September.
  • Nancy Jo Cullen’s debut novel The Western Alienation Merit Badge was published in 2019.
  • Marita Dachsel’s most recent book is the poetry collection There Are Not Enough Sad Songs
  • Ariel Gordon released the essay collection Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forests in 2019. It has been nominated for the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award
  • Fiona Tinwei Lam’s poetry collection Odes & Laments was published in 2019.
  • Maria Meindl’s debut novel The Work was published in 2019.
  • Saleema Newaz’s new novel, Songs for the End of the World, was due to be released in August. Due to uncanny connections between her novel—about a coronavirus that sweeps the world in 2020—and our current moment, the book has been released early as an ebook and the print book is coming this summer.
  • Patricia Storms’ most recent book is the picture book Moon Wishes, co-written with Guy Storms and illustrated by, Milan Pavlovic published in 2019
  • Julia Zarankin’s first book, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, is coming in September (and I can hardly wait!)

This is just a smattering of updates from our contributors, all of which have been up to good and interesting things in the years since the book came out. What a pleasure it is to have this connection with each and every one of them.

April 28, 2020

Gleanings

Image of a battered old plastic chair sitting on the sidewalk with a handwritten cardboard sign on it saying FREE.

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April 28, 2020

You are allowed.

You are allowed to have unpopular opinions.

You are not obligated to share them.

You can share them if you want, but you will annoy people

and maybe this is the point.

You are allowed to annoy people.

They are allowed to find you annoying when you do.

When you begin a post with “Am I the only one who…”

most of the time you are not.

You are allowed to like unpopular things

and not like popular things

and neither fact is particularly remarkable, really,

but neither is the photograph of my sandwich

that I posted on Instagram.

April 27, 2020

Where I Find the Time To Read: The Global Pandemic Edition

This is the third and perhaps the least fun installment in a series of posts about how I find the time to read. (Part one was about reading with a small baby, and you can read the post-breastfeeding edition here.)

And this post is remarkable because in the beginning of this, I couldn’t read at all. It was terrible, because the world was already upside-down, and then here I was unable to read—and if I’m not a reader, then who even am I?

Finding my way back to reading has been to find my way back into my own head again, and since I managed this, books and reading have provided the most wonderful distraction. Books have proven to be the very best way to measure out these days, and worthwhile not just as an escape, but also for the uncanny connections they’ve managed to make to what we’re going through, underlining the universality of experience even in extraordinary times, and also how amazing books really are.

Here’s how I did it.

  • Rereading: In difficult times, there is nothing like returning to a book that’s familiar, a book that’s not going to surprise you. It’s a comfort thing, but it’s also a wonderful experience to be able to read again, to encounter a book you know and then find it changed. Or perhaps you’d forgotten it altogether—last summer I read Big Sky, Kate Atkinson’s first Jackson Brodie novel in almost a decade, and realized that I didn’t recall much of what happened in the first four books in the series. Returning to them since has been absolutely enchanting, and also so surprisingly perfect for this moment in a way I could never have predicted, not could have Atkinson herself as she wrote the novels years ago. That they acknowledge life’s darkness, which is important right now, but they’re also brilliantly funny and an escape in themselves. Getting to read these books again has been such a gift for me.
  • Create a reading project: Don’t make this aspirational, but instead make it something you really want to do, an indulgence instead of a chore. If your project, like mine, is about rereading, all the better, because these will be books you already have at home–which is important when you’re locked down under quarantine. I have one more Jackson Brodie book to read, and then I’m going to undertake rereading everything Margaret Drabble ever wrote in chronological order. Thankfully, Margaret Drabble wrote a lot of books, and I have this secret wish that as I read through them, the world outside might become a little less terrible.
  • Finally read the books you own that you haven’t read yet: I actually HAVE read all the books on my bookshelves, because the ones I haven’t read yet I keep on a different bookshelf…and some of these have been lingering there for a really long time. Now is the time! Keeping these titles distinct from the rest helps to focus your reading, and seeing the pile diminish can be satisfying. Remember too though that now is the time to acknowledge that some of these books you’re never actually going to read, and therefore you should get rid of them, which is perfectly fine and even freeing.
  • Have a book swap with your neighbour: You get something new to read, something just a little off your beaten track, and you also get a little burst of social connection. (Just make sure they’re not just giving you the books that they’ve finally accepted they’re never going to read, because that’s probably not going to end well for you…)
  • Acknowledge the reader you are: If your plan is to transform yourself into someone you’re not, then I’m not sure you’re going to be very successful. Life is hard enough right now, and I just don’t think it’s the best time to be adding reading Karl Ove Knausgård to your struggles if you, like me, have never found the prospect very appealing. Instead, pick up only the books you’re really excited about and read like nobody’s watching—because nobody is.
  • Don’t be afraid to break up with your book: If the same book has been sitting on your beside since March 11, then it’s possible that the pandemic is not your literary problem. Perhaps that book is not even a bad book, but it’s just not the book you need at this moment, and you should have no compunction about putting it away for awhile. Forever, if need be. Try another one, and even another one, and eventually, something will take. (Here are some recommendations!)
  • Order some books from your local indie, or from Indigo if that’s what’s available to you. I’m not saying this is going to get you out of your reading slump, but waiting for things to come in the post MAKES ME SO HAPPY these days and all days, and being happy feels good.
  • Set limits for social media: The only social media app on my phone is Instagram, because I find it inspiring, as opposed to Facebook or Twitter which just raises my blood pressure and lead to endless scrolling. I don’t hate these sites, but they suck up my time in unproductive ways, so I am glad they’re not always accessible to me.
  • Put your phone away: My best time for reading is from 9-11 once my kids have gone to bed, and I get the most reading done when my phone is out of reach.
  • Ask yourself just what you’re seeking from news coverage: I’m not hiding my head in the sand, and it’s important for me to know what’s going on in the world. But during the time when I couldn’t read books and was obsessively scrolling and refreshing news sites, I was desperately looking for answers that nobody had yet. They still don’t. Acknowledging the futility of this was useful to me, and it was heartening to realize that books knew more secrets. These days, I focus my news consumption on print media (it has context and it’s FINITE!) and don’t look at online news after sunset.
  • Stop watching so much Netflix. Unless you’re loving it and don’t miss reading at all, but I really do believe that books are a better kind of escape (and they help you sleep better). Rhonda Douglas is running a A 30-Day No Netflix Challenge over at her website as an incentive for writers, and I think it’s a great challenge for readers too. Or what if you set aside one or two evenings a week for reading instead of Tiger King? You probably won’t be sorry you did.

April 23, 2020

Misconduct of the Heart, by Cordelia Strube

I was nervous about this book, and if you’ve ever read Cordelia Strube you’ll understand. Cordelia Strube whose previous novel was On the Margins of These Pages, There is Heartbreak, or at least it might as well have been. (The book was actually On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, it was one of my favourite books of 2016, and won the Toronto Book Award.) But my capacity for heartbreak is so currently occupied at the moment by everything, and I can’t take any more. So I went into this warily, is what I’m saying, like the book itself was an unreliable teenage boyfriend. “Here’s my heart, Cordelia Strube,” is what I was thinking. “Be careful, please.”

Misconduct of the Heart is not a feel-good comedy. Narrator Stevie is currently sandwiched between violent assaults by her son who returned from Afghanistan with PTSD and the demands of her aging parents (her mother assaults their personal support worker and her father shits his pants), all the while Stevie herself has trauma that she’s never properly processed or admitted to anyone. She became pregnant with her son after a violent gang rape when she was a teenager, and was never able to show him affection—though her own mother and father weren’t stand-out examples of parenting either, so did anyone ever have a chance?

But they do, which is the point of this book, which is as funny as it’s dark. Populated by the characters who work at Chappy’s, the weathered franchise restaurant in suburban Toronto where Stevie works as kitchen manager, and if you’ve ever worked in a kitchen, you’ll recognize the scene. High stress, as if Stevie needs any more—but then someone drops off a child who might be the daughter of her son, and here Stevie sees the possibility of something. Redemption? Could this troubled world ever give her that much?

This is not a feel-good comedy at all, but oh it’s so richly funny. Funny in the way the world is, absurd, preposterous, sad and hilarious. “You can’t make this stuff up,” kind of funny, which is funny because Strube does, and it’s wonderful. And even feel-good, because there is hope and there is triumph, and the reader is rooting for every single one of these lovable losers to finally win.

It’s a slow build, this book, and first 100 pages are tough—the narrative is a bit disorienting, we’re not sure why we care about any of these people yet, and the story of Stevie’s past and what happened to her son is really brutal. But the reader should persist because once the story picks up, the payoff is huge, such an unrelenting kernel of light and love. There is nobody else who writes like Cordelia Strube, and this is one of my favourite books of the year.

April 22, 2020

Making Sense of What We’re Going Through

Spiritually speaking, magazines were a really terrible part of the first very bad weeks of this devastating global crisis, the new issues that arrived like vestiges of a different world, a world where there were events in March and April, arts festivals, hockey games, book launches, and photography shows, and museum exhibits. A world where one might require easy weeknight suppers, there being anything else to do on a weeknight besides cook an elaborate feast. Heartbreakingly, the April Toronto Life was “Best New Restaurants,” which is too much when you consider more than a few are unlikely to reopen again. The ads for the Winnie the Pooh exhibit at the ROM broke my heart—it was really the most delightful show, and such a draw for the museum and I am so glad we got a chance to see it before everything stopped. (I was also REALLY not into the outdated issue of The Guardian Weekly that arrived in mid-March with the headline, “The Coronavirus: Reasons Not to Panic.”)

It was an incongruity that only underlined how much absolutely nobody had seen this coming or knew what was going on, that there wasn’t a script for any of it, a template. “Unprecedented” the word that everybody was using, and I tried to stay positive by focusing on how much of what had precedent was truly awful, and also on what it meant it to learn that so much that seemed impossible actually wasn’t. But still, it felt like there was nobody at the wheel, not just in terms of leadership, and science, but also storytelling, all such a vast unknown. All the atoms in the universe just falling, and us having no idea where they’ll land. (We never do. Our current situation just exposed the illusion.)

For me, there is something tremendously heartening about the power of story. When I read Ali Smith’s Autumn in April 2017, I remember feeling hope again for the first time in almost a year. Because someone had gone and created art and story out of the mess of our time, post-Brexit and that Orange monster, and the very fact that someone could render art from it all had made me feel like maybe we were possibly a society worth salvaging after all.

And I felt the same when the May issue of Toronto Life appeared in my mailbox the other day, like we’d turned a corner somehow, the world we live in finally beginning to align with our idea of it again. It’s a miraculous issue for so many reasons, not least of which that it was put together in a matter of weeks once our reality had shifted. With eerily beautiful photography, stories of Torontonians weathering the storm, our current situation in all its mess and complexity. Context. (My understanding is that Toronto’s Spacing magazine has a similar issue coming down the pipes—I just purchased a subscription based on that promise.)

I’m so grateful for the writers who are doing the work of making sense of what we’re going through. Their work is invaluable.

April 21, 2020

Gleanings


Coming in June: LET’S GET TOGETHER! A guided and community driven experience for novice and advanced bloggers.

April 20, 2020

A Note to a Tree

Dear Tree,

You are a silver maple or a black maple—I can never remember. Which doesn’t mean I love you less, because you’re everything. A home for birds, squirrels and a family of raccoons. Your shade means there are a handful of days in which our lack of air conditioning matters. Because of you, we live in a tree-house, a different view of you from so many of our windows. I have revelled in your gorgeous foliage as I relaxed beneath you in my hammock. Spending all year cleaning up after you, white blossoms in the spring, your maple keys afterwards, those yellow leaves that fall in November, and the sticks and twigs that break in winter with the ice. I can set my clock by you.

(Once I also looked out my window to see an arborist trimming your branches in a rain storm, smoking a cigarette like it was nothing. One of the most memorable performances I have ever seen.)

I am afraid of losing you. Desperately. You are 150 yrs old, so this is not an irrational fear, and when I am afraid of heavy winds, you’re what I am thinking about. How our homes, our lives, and all of us are so vulnerable. I cannot imagine this place without you, who was here before anything else.

But you have also taught me that strength is bending, that deep roots can endure, and how much everything is so connected.
We’re so lucky to be your neighbour,
xo

(You too can write a #notetoatree for a chance to win a collection of nature books from Groundwood Books in celebration of the publication of Andrea Curtis’s A Forest in the City. Head over to Twitter or Instagram and check the #notetoatree hashtag for more details. Two days left to enter!)

April 16, 2020

The Union of Smokers, by Paddy Scott

I confess that I cheated a bit with this one. A book about a twelve-year-old boy, “the heroic last day in the life” according to the copy on the back, and these days I just don’t have the stomach for heartbreak, so I read the last page first to see if this was a tragedy that was survivable—for me or the character, or both, perhaps—and I determined that it was. I could take this.

So I knew what I was getting into with Paddy Scott’s The Union of Smokers, is what I mean, but did I really? In this story of Kaspar Pine, a farm kid from the outskirts of Quinton, ON, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the town of Trenton, right down to the swing bridge and the creosote plant with a propensity for catching on fire.

Not everyone takes Kaspar seriously, in fact nobody really does, except Kaspar himself. (“Getting snorted at by women is bound to happen if you’ve learned your entire repertoire of charming manoeuvres from senior citizens.”) His mother’s whereabouts are unknown, and he was brought up by his father in a kind of deprivation, until circumstances changed and he was brought to live with his maternal grandparents on a farm outside of town. They, at least, provided him with the stability and love that had been missing from his life, and a sense of identity in farming culture, which most of the people who live in town don’t properly understand.

Kaspar, a prolific smoker thanks to the collection in his butt baggie, bikes into town to replace a canary (twice) and here is where the book begins, when he meets up with Mary Lynn, love of his life, just a couple of years older, with whom years before he’d once shared a dramatic adventure while dressed in a cowboy costume, but she doesn’t remember. The two of them become yoked, and it turns out their bond is even deeper than that, although not in the way that Kaspar longs for, and Mary Lynn herself has no idea what to make of this wacky weirdo kid who won’t leave her alone and ends up using her bra as a tourniquet, but not in a sexual way.

An eccentric portrait of small town life; a narrative voice that gets in your head and proves unforgettable, a story that manages to be utterly devastating and uplifting at once thanks to a character so strangely and richly imagined, with the most indefatigable sense of himself and his story and his worth—no matter what anybody else thinks, and you’re going to take his side. Not to mention be sorry when it’s finally time to leave it. I really loved this book.

PS I picked up the book finally after its virtual launch at 49thShelf. Throughout this month and next, we’re spotlighting new releases that deserve our attention at a moment when launches and festivals have been cancelled. Hope you can pay attention to what we’re doing here and do your best to support these books and authors.

April 15, 2020

Books on the Radio

Books are giving me life right now, at a moment when life itself is kind of thin, and so it was a pleasure to speak on CBC Ontario Morning today about five books that have been good for my spirits lately, as inspiration, distraction, and reasons for hope. You can listen again to my recommendations here—I come in at 44:30.

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