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March 2, 2021

Gleanings

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March 1, 2021

Anniversary

I know I am not alone in feeling a mild sense of dread as this new year moves toward mid-March, toward dates as indelibly etched on my mind as they were on the calendar, before the calendar ceased to be etched altogether.

March 8: our last normal day out in the world, albeit with uncharacteristic attention to hand sanitizing. We took public transit, ate gelato in a restaurant, and gloried in the arrival of spring, discovering the year’s first crocus blooms as we walked home from the streetcar.

March 11: when it became clear that things were not right, and I stopped at the grocery store on the way home from picking up my children from school to stock up on cans of beans and frozen vegetables, a shopping trip the children remember well because they haven’t been to the grocery store since and also because I let them buy all the chips and candy they wanted.

March 16: the day we were meant to fly to England to visit my husband’s family, including our new baby niece and my father-in-law, who was in the last weeks of his life. But we’d cancelled our vacation days before, which at first was a difficult decision and then seemed straightforward, the least of our concerns as the entire world descended into crisis.

After that, dates ceased to mean anything, each day blurring into the next with another sleepless night and heart palpitations from acute anxiety. We were lucky to be safe and cozy at home, counting all the blessings (and there were plenty), but I was not functioning well, unable to do anything much except for one mindless rewatch of Crocodile Dundee on Netflix and refreshing pages on the internet in search of the elusive answer to one question: “What is going to happen next?”

Eventually the distinction between day and night would resume, and dates began to have meaning again—kind of. We managed a pretty satisfying summer. Our children returned to school in September. We are not alone in having found creative and sometimes-satisfying ways to conduct our lives under the circumstances, even if the circumstances still aren’t great.

A year on though, we’re still superstitious about the calendar. We’ve been in lockdown since November 23 here in Toronto, so I would have had to go out of my way to get a 2021 calendar to hang on the wall in our kitchen, and I didn’t want to jinx it. A charity soliciting donations had sent us a calendar in the mail and we went with that, feeling virtuous for saving it from the recycling. March is a photo of a humpback whale—but there is not a single thing written on the grid of days. January and February are also blank… Partly for fears of inviting fate to fuck with me, but also because there hasn’t been a whole lot to write.

I’m beginning to bank on summer though. Not completely—a few plans I’ve not dared to set in ink, because they’re dependent on things beyond my control, but we’ve been booked a camping trip, another week away. The other day I took a chance and penned in our spring birthdays, because it seems likely they’ll be happening, regardless of how many friends we can gather with. Little by little we begin to dare to count on something like the future.

February 26, 2021

Wintering, by Katherine May

It’s funny you know, for some reason I was expecting a more literal guide to surviving winter with Katherine May’s Wintering, but she writes about having to wait years for snow to fall where she lives in the south of England. In order to get a handle on winter’s reality, she has to go on field trips. For her, wintering is a metaphor, an idea—one year, her husband becomes very ill, her own health is suffering, her son stops attending school due to anxiety. She and her family are forced to rest and retreat for a while, to observe a different kind of season, but one she feels she has a muscle for after a breakdown she’d experienced as a teenager. Sometimes the best thing is just to submit and acknowledge the season you are in, which is part of a cycle.

Wintering is a fascinating book about reconnecting with cycles, seasons, the rhythms of the natural world. Although it does feel curious to read this book here in Canada, written by a person from a country where people don’t tend to have parkas or even winter boots. May’s winter as metaphor doesn’t always translate here, where the season can go on so long, everything still and frozen, where we’re still digging out long after the vernal equinox. It’s hard to buy that this is a season as rich with life as all the others are. But I suppose that makes the book for me all the more purposeful.

May’s writing is bright and engaging. I kept reading bits aloud to whoever had the good fortune to be in my presence. It made me consider becoming a modern-day Druid, to be honest, and I loved the parts about winter swimming, though I could never dare such a thing.

If you read and enjoyed Wintering, I recommend you read Maria Mutch’s beautiful memoir Know the Night (I reviewed it for the National Post and am still really proud of what I wrote) nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 2014. Definitely the two works are gorgeously complementary.

February 24, 2021

‘90s Films About Hideous Women Finding Love

The 1991 River Phoenix/Lili Taylor vehicle, Dogfight, could only be construed as a romance by a certain sort of person, namely an awkward teenage girl with low self-esteem and no sense of her own narrative beyond being a character in someone else’s story. Who is content to sit around waiting for a boy with a pretty face to saunter over and ask her on a date—even if the only reason he’s asking is to win a bet with his friends as to which of them can pick up the ugliest girl.

 The movie takes place in San Francisco, 1963, the night before the Kennedy assassination, which is also the night before Phoenix’s character, Eddie Birdlace, a Marine, ships out to Vietnam. He brings Taylor’s Rose to the “dogfight,” and not only fails to win the bet, but Rose ends up slugging him when she gets wise to the ruse. Which, of course, provokes his interest—turns out Rose is more than an ugly face. And the two proceed to spend a Before Sunrise-ish night in each other’s company, Rose managing to project a sense of humanity onto Birdlace’s bland exterior, so that it seems kind of sweet that they end up sleeping together. Birdlace promising to write to her, but then he tears up Rose’s address the next morning as his bus pulls away, and now the 1960s proper can finally begin.

 If Dogfight wasn’t hope enough for weird girls with problems applying eye-makeup or fitting unruly bodies into pretty dresses that one day they too could be used and abused by a fellow with A-List good looks, along comes 1995’s Circle of Friends, based on the novel by Maeve Binchy. This time, the absolute dog is Minnie Driver who inexplicably draws the eye of Chris O’Donnell, a Hollywood Chris before Hollywood Chris’s were even a thing. Set in 1950s’ Dublin, their unlikely pairing invites disbelief—Driver’s Benny was supposed to end up with a very greasy character played by Alan Cumming—and then it all goes wrong when Benny’s conventionally attractive friend tricks O’Donnell’s Jack into having sex with her and pins her accidental pregnancy on him. In the movie, unlike the book, Benny eventually takes Jack back, however, because—obviously—such a girl can’t afford to be picky.

 If Dogfight wasn’t hope enough for weird girls with problems applying eye-makeup or fitting unruly bodies into pretty dresses that one day they too could be used and abused by a fellow with A-List good looks, along comes 1995’s Circle of Friends

The 1994 cult fave Muriel’s Wedding also falls into this peculiar genre, but at least with a high degree of self-awareness. Dumpy Muriel (played gorgeously by Toni Collette in her breakout role) wants nothing more than a dream wedding and a love story as rousing as an ABBA song—apparently she never listened very carefully to the lyrics of songs like “Waterloo” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” She finally schemes her way to a happily-ever-after with marriage to a hunky South African swimmer with a face so plastic he makes Chris O’Donnell look like a character actor. Eventually a series of tragedies makes Muriel realize that her priorities are shallow, and she discovers that female friendship can give us the real loves of our lives. But in the meantime, she has managed to consummate her marriage with the swimmer—score one for the ugly chick!

 It’s another bet that kicks off She’s All That (1999), perhaps the most defining film of this kind. Big man on high school campus Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.) suffers a comedown when his girlfriend dumps him for a cast member of MTV’s The Real World, and then he accepts his best friend’s challenge to turn the most unlikely girl at school into a prom queen. The girl? Lainey Boggs, played by Rachael Leigh Cook, an artsy dork who finds Zack and his friends insufferable and falls down a lot. But it also turns out—and get this—that when she takes her glasses off, she’s actually hot, and this helps Zack realize (as River Phoenix and Chris O’Donnell did before him) that this weird looking chick might be the only real thing he’s ever had.

 Which is the point, of course, for any woman, whether she wears glasses or not: she is there to bring meaning into the life of a painfully boring, oblivious man. To awaken his feelings, his passion, and remain loyal to him even after he treats her poorly, because after all, how could he know any better before she’s shown him the way? It is the job of this woman to be his helpmeet on the journey toward enlightenment, the discovery of his truest self, never mind her own desires.

(1990s’ films remind us to be wary of women with desires: remember how The Hand That Rocked the Cradle turned out? And Rebecca DeMornay wasn’t even ugly.)

What higher purpose is there anyway than making a man who resembles a Ken doll consider that he might be human?

February 23, 2021

Gleanings

Very happy to share another round-up of GLEANINGS this week, including a whole bunch of new voices from writers who’ve taken part in my MAKE THE LEAP course this month. I hope you’ll be as excited about their work as I am.

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.

February 22, 2021

On Rereading Wuthering Heights

I received the Gladstone Press edition of Wuthering Heights for Christmas this year, a beautiful book that replaced perhaps the most hideous copy of Wuthering Heights in existence, a cheap paperback full of typos—I’d got rid of it or else I’d post a photo, but you can check it out here. (Oh, and while I’ve got you, doesn’t this look like the version of Wuthering Heights that LM Montgomery wrote?) Anyway, the Gladstone Press Wuthering Heights is beautiful, and an occasion to reread this classic novel. I don’t remember when I’d read it previously—at least once, perhaps for a university English class? But it was a curious thing to encounter it again.

Mostly because…everybody in the book is terrible. Except the housekeeper, Nelly Dean. Somebody needs to write a Wide Sargasso Sea-style retelling from Nelly Dean’s point of view. But everybody else: awful. And not just Linton, who had every right to be awful, because somebody had named him Linton, but all of them, including various Catherines. If only somebody had thought to take the children from these families into town and encouraged them to mingle with wider-society. If only any of them had ever been attired for the weather, which would meant there would have been less catching one’s death. This book, I wrote a few weeks ago in an Instagram post, would make an excellent advertisement for Goretex.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the book—I did. But I sure did hate everybody within it, until the end when the pieces began to come together. The book underlined for me too how little patience I have for men these days, the excuses we make for their deplorable behaviour. However did anyone get the idea that Heathcliff was a romantic hero? Heathcliff was a monster. Really, this is kind of a book that’s up there with Frankenstein, instead. He makes Mr. Rochester look like Prince Charming. And, well, maybe I was wrong to assume he was meant to be a hero at all, maybe I just put him that category because I was young and stupid when I first read this book. But I found absolutely nothing redeemable in his character this time.

Sometimes I feel like we don’t know how to talk about men except in exemplary terms. I write about this in my own novel. We’re finishing a read-aloud of The Odyssey right now, and maybe it’s Emily Wilson’s translation, but there is something ironic about the constant refrain of “the godlike Odysseus” in the text, when he really seems to be so fallible, painfully human. And so too with Heathcliff, in whom we attribute depth in order to better understand his terrible behaviour, so that he becomes larger than life, when really he’s so pitifully small, and we really need to stop making excuses for terrible men just like him.

February 19, 2021

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, by Cherie Jones

Do not let the beautiful cover fool you, or the setting in paradise: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, by Cherie Jones, is a brutal book, violent and disturbing, but there’s nothing gratuitous about the violence, and the storytelling is absolutely stunning.

It’s a story told in pieces about a group of people on a beach in Barbados, away from the pretty tourist snapshots. The night Lala gives birth to her daughter, her husband kills a white man in a botched robbery at one of those big houses on the beach, and so begins the story, but it also stretches back years and generations before it, with Lala’s mother and her grandmother Wilma, who’d been the one to warn Lala away from the caves on the beach “where bad man go when they die…men that are too bad to rest easy in their graves down in those tunnels harvesting souls for the Devil.” The sister in the story goes exploring anyway, because “what is the use of a tunnel if you don’t get to see where it lead?” And she narrowly escapes with her life, but she loses her arm, and Lala scoffs at that:

“Well I bet it not so bad having one arm,” says Lala. “She can still do things like everybody else, she can still get a husband and some children and a house.” / “Stupid girl,” says Wilma, “how she’s she going to sweep it?”

Sweeping a house is important when you live by a beach, for keeping up appearances, but it’s also a metaphor for the practical matters of day-to-day life, those things that provide safety and security, for taking care of oneself. And the women in this novel have all started out with disadvantages, as we discover as the story gets put together, piece-by-piece. What caused Wilma, her daughter Esme, and then Lala to be the way they are, the violence and trauma in their pasts which meant that they’ve never been able to count on anybody really, that their lives are tough and hardscrabble, and they’d take any avenue out of it, except that none of the avenues really tend to lead anywhere at all.

Take Lala, for instance, who ends up with Adan, who dotes on their baby, but beats her—he was her getaway from Wilma and her husband who’d preyed on Esme and driven her to her own sorry fate. And her connection to Adan’s friend Tone, which stretched back years, when she first discovered him working in the garden at the house her grandmother was cleaning, Tone suffering from something we don’t know what until the end of the book. Breadcrumbs, are what Jones offers her reader, clues and hints. The book is a mystery, but not in the conventional way, because we know who did it from the novel’s first pages. It was Adan in the big house with a handgun. But what happens next? And the way the rest of the story unfolds is tragic, mesmerizing, twisty and surprising, Jones managing a complex and nuanced treatment of even the most despicable characters (and her most sympathetic characters get to behave despicably).

There’s also the wife of the dead man in the big house, herself from the island and her husband had been her getaway, but now he’s been murdered and here she is, right back where she started. The police officer with the digestive issues who thinks he’s putting the pieces together, but the pieces are all wrong. The sex worker who’s fed up with the cop who’s been threatening to arrest her since she stopped sleeping with him. Tone, who’s been running his whole life and can’t catch a break, and it doesn’t look like his fate’s due to change anytime soon.

The ending of this book is devastating, but perfect. Literally uplifting, and I’d say spiritually as well, and it’s hardly heartwarming, but instead heartsoaring, propelled by the power of story, the magic of Cherie Jones’ characters and prose.

February 17, 2021

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.

February 16, 2021

The Midnight Bargain, by C.L. Polk

I’m not especially fond of the Canada Reads debates. I find them frustrating and annoying, to be honest, though this is mostly because of my own sensibilities than anything else. I don’t really like yelling at the radio. Last year, Jael Richardson did a daily recap of the debates on Instagram Live and I preferred following the series this way to the show itself. What I do love, however, is a Canada Reads lineup like what they’ve come up with this year, a list of books that are off the beaten track, that I might not have picked up otherwise, and that don’t immediately seem to have much in common, which means the connections between them are fascinating (and this is why I am not especially fond of the Canada Reads debates—I love the idea of how the books are enriched by their relationships to each other rather than having to pit them as competitors).

It helps that I’ve already read three of the titles on the list—Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots; Butter Honey Pig Bread, by Francesca Ekwuyasi; and Two Trees Make a Forest, by Jessica J. Lee—and that I really loved them. And that I probably wouldn’t have read the final two titles otherwise, but not it seems kind of lazy not to read them all. Even if C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain seems so far from up my alley that it’s in a different universe altogether. “It’s fantasy meets a regency romance,” I told my husband. He said, “But you don’t really like either of those things.”

“Ahh,” I answered him. “The power of hybridity.”

If not for Canada Reads, I wouldn’t have read The Midnight Bargain, set in an otherworld that feels a but like 19th-century England, but with magic, and if colonialism had never happened. I will admit that the world-building felt arduous to me at times, which is often my problem with fantasy—so much to keep track of and understand, when I’d prefer to get lost in the plot. But it started to pay off when it meant that the plot would have kinds outcomes that I’d never encountered in a novel before, where characters motivations turned out to be so much more complex and fascinating than they could have been in a world that was familiar.

Beatrice is a sorceress and about to embark on her first bargaining season, where she will be paired off with a husband, especially important since her father’s business stumbles have landed their family in enormous debt. But here’s where it gets complicated—once paired off, Beatrice will be required to wear a collar to suppress her magic powers, supposedly because the risk of being pregnant and inhabited by spirits is just too great, and so women are not permitted to practice magic until their childbearing years are over. But really this is just an excuse to keep women from realizing their own power, which suits the patriarchy just fine. But Beatrice has a plan—she’s been practising magic in secret and is so close to becoming a full-fledged Magus. If she can complete her self-taught course before her bargaining season, can she convince her father to let her stay single and join him in running their family business, saving her family from financial ruin and keeping her freedom at once?

But when Beatrice meets Ianthe Lavan, things get more complicated. Turns out he’s everything she’s dreamed of and so wealthy that her family’s fortunes would be saved by their union–but is she willing to give up the most essential part of herself to fulfill societal expectations?

Is such a thing worth the promise of love?

Totally not my kind of thing at all, but that’s what I liked best about it. The Midnight Bargain was rich, absorbing and wonderful, totally transporting.

February 16, 2021

Good Weekends

I’ve written about this before, and I’ll probably write about it forever, but I remember riding the train to work when I lived in Japan, my little red flip phone with all the charms in my hand, and texting my husband, except then he was my boyfriend, “Thank you for a wonderful weekend.”

For the first few years of our relationship, one of us or both of us was always abroad, and I think it infused our domestic pattern with a kind of urgency, free time not to be wasted. We got out and did stuff, and went places, train rides and bike rides. I had a scrapbook then, and I don’t anymore, but I’ve never stopped feeling compelled to do something with my wide open days. And now that I am almost 42, a huge part of that compulsion is that if I don’t burn a lot of energy, I’ll be unable to sleep.

The past year has been a tough time to be the family social convener, possibilities shifting from the infinite ones that a city can offer to, “What alley are we going to walk down today?” (I saw a very funny meme on Instagram on the weekend in which a person comes to the realization that a daily walk is not, in fact, an adequate substitution for a rich and fulfilling life.)

But I think I’ve done a fairly respectable job of keeping us from dying of boredom. We’ve been booking our carshare every two weeks for a trip out of the neighbourhood, which has been fun. We still kind of hate skating, but booking weekly skates means something regular in our calendar (yay!) plus they kick you off after 45 minutes on the rink (also, yay!). We’ve done fun things like get afternoon tea at home from the Windsor Arms Hotel over Christmas. Lots of takeout. If all else fails, we walk to Bloomers at Bloor and Ossington to get donuts. There is also a creme brulee place at the top of the hill on Bathurst Street, that makes for as satisfying a walk as it does a snack, and we can walk home via the Baldwin Steps.

(Please don’t write a comment about treats negating the purposes of walking. Nope. You get both. It’s a perfect system.)

This weekend was particularly lovely. Saturday morning oh-so-lazy, and I love this, because the weekdays aren’t (we get up at 7:00 and do yoga) and so it’s something different, a treat. If I’ve not had at least two pots of tea and read the entire newspaper, I’m not satisfied. And the afternoon we got in the car and drove out to Humber Bay Shores in west end, where people are skating on frozen ponds, and we weren’t brave enough to skate, but we walked, and it was so much fun. And then walking along the beach, ice frozen along the shore line and the ducks that bobbed along anyway, and I was so happy. I am always happiest by the lake, no matter the season, and I’d remembered to wear snowpants so I wasn’t even cold.

Sunday was Valentines Day, but even more important, it was WAFFLES DAY, which comes but once a week. We had two great Valentines Day plans, which were excellent. 1) A walk down to Little Island Comics on College Street to pick-up the books I’d ordered for my children for Valentines Day gifts, and then 2) we bought the kids pizza and pop (a big deal for 21st century children! Even though when I was a kid we mainlined it), and the even got complimentary canolli, and they ate it in front of the TV while Stuart and I picked up a five-course dinner from Piano Piano, and ate it in the kitchen by the light of the oven hood bulb and the Christmas lights hanging over the door, which made a truly splendid ambience and it really felt like a date.

I know this is a truly boring weekend plan when I lay it all out there (there are people who climb mountains and spear great white sharks, I know) but it’s a pandemic and everything is closed, and also I had work to do all weekend, in between the five course meals and trips to the beach. (When you put it like that, I almost sound like a movie star!)

Monday was a holiday here in Ontario, Family Day, which was designed before a time when family members spent months on end in each other’s company and no one else’s. The plan was to deliver small Valentines packages to friends in our neighbourhood, which we did, with so much complaining, because our children (one in particular) had truly reached the end of their ropes and were so ready to get back to school. But it all came together in the evening when we partook in a cooking class I’d found out about last week when the food bank sent me an email—the event was setting a world for the world’s largest cooking class, raising money for the food bank (they raised more than $40,000) and giving us a fun opportunity to cook a delicious meal together. And it was really fun, and wonderful, and delicious, and made me realize my children need to spend more time around the stove.

I capped off the long weekend with a hot bath, where I finished rereading Happy All the Time, by Laurie Colwin. (The other book I read this weekend was my friend Chantel Guertin’s forthcoming novel, Instamom, and it was amazing.)

The kids went back to school this morning for the first time in nearly two months. We had to walk through freshly fallen snow to get there, and it was a winter wonderland. And once they were dropped off, I would have sent that same text message to my husband that I sent long ago, but I didn’t have to, because we’re always together these days, so I just told him.

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