counter on blogger

Pickle Me This

May 23, 2017

Mitzi Bytes in the World

After a flurry of busy-ness, I’m playing a bit of catch-up with news of Mitzi Bytes in the world. Earlier this month I had the great pleasure of travelling to Gananoque to take part in the 1000 Islands Writers Festival. This was the weekend it rained every day following the week during which it rained every day, and by Saturday the rivers had burst their banks and there were fewer islands than a thousand. But even flooding didn’t dampen the spirit of the festival. I had a very good time, staying at the historic Gananoque Inn and rooming right next door to Lindy Mechefske, who I’ve been online friends with for awhile and whose Sir John’s Table I loved.  On Saturday morning, Lindy and I did a panel about writing, blogging and social media, which was terrific fun and illuminating for all of us, and then I taught a blogging workshop following that—and got to meet Emily Prout, of the very cool and empowering blog, Arrow It Forward. My other event was later that day, a conversation about motherhood at the Gananoque Library with a small circle of women ranging from new moms to a great-grandmother—and it was wonderful. What a delight to take part in a discussion, one that really happened too, and to get to know other people and learn new things about the context of my book. I’ve never encountered such a group of engaged and committed readers as I did in Gananoque, and the intimate settings were lent themselves to that dynamic.

I’d gone to see novelist Terry Fallis and spoken word artist PrufRock Shadowrunner the first evening of the festival, and finished the Saturday with a wonderful and delicious event with Lindy and Lindsay Anderson and Dana VanVeller of the cookbook Feast: An Edible Roadtrip. It was also very nice to see Cathy Marie Buchanan and Claudia Davila again, and meet kids authors Paul Covello and Jess Keating (whose Pink Is For Blobflish went down very well at our house…). On Sunday morning all the authors had a delicious breakfast at the golf club on the banks of the river (which were nearer than they should have been) with a packed house of readers who’d enjoyed the weekend as much as we had. I was also glad to get a chance to check out Beggar’s Banquet Books before I headed out of town—an excellent new and used bookstore with Mitzi Bytes in stock.

**

And then Wednesday night was the big finale to a very busy two months of Mitzi Bytes events—although stay tuned for other happenings throughout summer and fall. That night I had the great privilege of taking part in the IFOA Weekly Series with my very dear friend Rebecca Rosenblum, whose book So Much Love (NOMINATED FOR THE AMAZON.CA FIRST NOVEL AWARD!) came out the same day as mine. Moderated by the excellent Amy Jones and hosted by Sheniz Janmohamed, it went as well as you might expect for a conversation by two friends who have a lot of good things to say about each others’ work—which is to say, very well. Amy did a terrific job drawing connections between two novels that are very different, we all had a lot of fun, and, as Sheniz commented afterwards, we manage to broach some very timely ideas: “What does it mean to own your story? What is the responsibility that comes with telling other people’s stories?”

There were lots of people there, and it was such a good vibe—a spectacular close to the season of Mitzi. And I am so grateful to everybody who has supported the book so well this spring—it has meant the world to me.

**

I was also lucky to take part in two great conversations that have found their way into print. Check out “A Spy Among Us”, by Stacey Gibson at U of T Magazine, and Ann Cinzar’s interview with me at Literary Mama.

May 22, 2017

Glass Beads, by Dawn Dumont

“Why is Friends on every channel?” is a question posed at the beginning of one of the inter-connected short stories in Dawn Dumont’s new book, Glass Beads, and the answer to that question is the same as the answer to another one: What makes Glass Beads so compulsively readable? A cast of compelling characters each so different and singular that their interactions create interesting conflict, plus sparkly witty dialogue. In the same way that Friends is a show you can have playing in the background, I read Glass Beads in two days. And yet—to say the book is similarly easy (the kind of thing you can have playing in the background) is to undermine its substance, the darkness at its margins and core. But still: the darkness is not the whole point.

Last week on twitter, Tracey Lindberg asked a kind of rhetorical question about the possibility of Indigenous beach reads. A rhetorical question because her point is that Indigenous literature is pushed to be issues-based and doesn’t get to be fun, light and joyful in the way that other literatures do. And the closest answer I have to the idea of an Indigenous beach read is Dawn Dumont’s work, including Glass Beads, which follows Rose’s Run (a book I loved) and Nobody Cries at Bingo. Her work is as smart and funny as you’d expect from a writer whose background includes law and standup comedy, never shying away from big issues and politics (in Rose’s Run, a demon draws on the strength of women to seek justice for innumerable wrongs committed against them by men; in the context of missing and murdered Indigenous women, this is no small statement) but written with a decidedly commercial bent.

Billed as a collection of connected short stories, Glass Beads actually works astoundingly well as a novel, told from four perspectives between  1993 and 2008. Friends Nellie and Julie whose ties go back to childhood on their reserve, although they’re very different. Nellie is stubborn, smart and determined to become a lawyer, whereas Julie is unsettled, rattled by early loss and childhood traumas and given a lot of latitude because of her beauty. Nellie is in love with Everett, who is gorgeous but a bit dumb, and unwilling to give her the commitment she longs for. Abandoned by his parents, Everett carries his own baggage. Rounding out their foursome is Taz, who knows Nellie through the Native Students Council at their university and Everett because Taz buys drugs from his roommate. Taz and Julie become an unlikely couple, on-again and off-again as Everett and Nellie are.

The ties between the four of them deeply wound, binding, ever changing, time and experience bringing them together and apart. Nellie achieves her career goals, but find that there is still much to yearn for. Julie drifts, loses her way, and comes home again, at one point become incarcerated for her part in a fight, and is forced to partake in a substance abuse program even through she doesn’t have a substance abuse problem—but the carpentry program was full and that’s what happens when you’re a human being instead of a statistic. Taz moves from work with the provincial government to become Grand Chief of the Provincial Council of First Nations, with Nellie supporting him professionally. And Everett finally begins to the connect with the culture that was stolen from him when he lost his father, his ties to Nellie cemented when she gets pregnant with their child.

That we can read a book from four different perspectives and still not know everything, and that Dumont can create tension and shocking moments with that space beyond the limits of what we know about these characters is a testament to Glass Beads‘ craftsmanship, and why I consider it a novel more than stories—the book as a whole is deftly plotted. Its characters change and grow, harden yet remain vulnerable, get together and fall apart, and pick up the pieces again, and here we are witnessing all of it. We feel like we know them. Like a certain 1990s’ sitcom, but infinitely more interesting.

May 19, 2017

The Way Home in the Night, by Akiko Miyakoshi

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that everyone has their own story, about light in the dark, and pie, baths and bookshops. (The final clause of that sentence is evergreen, but still.) The Way Home in the Night, by Akiko Miyakoshi, brings all of these ideas together in a quiet thoughtful way and manages to be a lullaby—for the whole wide world.

(Check out the endpapers:)

Miyakoshi’s third book in English (after The Tea Party in the Woods and The Storm), The Way Home… is about a child (rabbit?) coming home when its late, sleepy in her mother’s arms. They walk together in the darkness of the city, past stores closing up shop, through empty streets which are illuminated by streetlights and the lights from people’s windows.

The child hears vague sounds, smells different scents in the air, and ponders what these tell us about what’s going onside the lives of the people at home in all the houses.

And I love that—curiosity about the lives of others, an acknowledgement that everybody is a character in their own story, stories we only sometimes get a glimpse of. That each of us is not the only person in the world, even, and that when we sleep—settling down to the bed as the narrator does after her mother tucks her in—the world is still going on without us, people going places, other people coming home.

The book then turns into an exercise in storytelling as the rabbit drifts into sleep, imagining the characters she encountered on her journey making their own way home, drawing a bath, settling down with a book. What can we know about other people, the book is asking us. And what does it mean when we bother to try? The point being that this wondering is what connects all, each of us with our own lit windows, our self-contained universes. In fact, we’re all a constellation.

May 17, 2017

Dr. Edith Crane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, by Suzette Mayr

Imagine Lucky Jim on acid, is how I’d pitch Suzette Mayr’s new novel, Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, to you, a book whose momentum is swift but in the trajectory of a downward spiral, circling the drain. Just like the cover, actually, hypnotic spiral. Of jackrabbits, instead of the unicorns which had been the overriding motif in Mayr’s Monoceros, which I loved in 2011. Rabbits not like copulating like, but instead the hallucinatory sort—Harvey and Alice in Wonderland, maybe even a bit Donnie Darko. (Please check out Mayr’s answers to CBC Books’ Magic 8 questionnaire to discover the surprising way in which Downton Abbey also infiltrated the novel.)

It’s a campus novel and, new start, new year, Dr. Edith Vane starts out with the best intentions. Her PhD. thesis on African-Canadian pioneer Beulah Crump-Withers is finally about to be published, she has tenure, and a brand new wardrobe, including the long cardigans and a pair of expensive shoes with hourglass heels. To contend with other challenges, she has her therapist on the line who assures Edith that she is indeed the architect of her own life. Never mind the the challenges start piling on—Edith’s evil thesis supervisor reappears in her life as the department’s honorary chair, Edith’s new girlfriend is proving noncommittal and all Edith wants to do is get married; the only graduate student she’s supervising quits her mentorship, plus the Crawley Hall, the brutalist building that is home to them all, is crumbling around her, elevators jamming, maggots dropping from the ceiling, sinkholes devouring the parking lot, and jackrabbits holed up in classrooms, their droppings scattered down the hall. Or maybe that part is just in Edith’s mind. It doesn’t help that she keeps downing bottles of wine.

The momentum of this novel, which I read in two delightful days, comes from the pile-on of absurd tragedies—how could things get any worse? Suzette Mayr taking care to immediately answer the question. And yet it’s so funny, and the energy, and the satire of campus bureaucracy is so spot-on and delicious that I would never ever call this book that goes down-down-down anything like a downer. I loved it.

May 15, 2017

Good Weekend

We had the most terrific weekend. Not for any particularly exhilarating reason, but instead for quite the opposite. It’s been weeks and weeks since we had a weekend with no plans in it, and during the last few weekends I’ve mostly been spending a day or more out of tow, plus. I was out a whole bunch of nights last week. And so the weekend of Mother’s Day arrived, and there was nothing else I wanted except to spend time with my children—what a thing. To turn off the internet too because there’s only so much of that shit-show one can contend with, so I spent Saturday in airplane mode, reading Suzette Mayr’s follow-up to Monoceros, Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall. Which was so good and I stayed up until midnight last night to get to the end, and after such a busy month where I’ve had so little time to read to read an entire novel in two days just felt extraordinary. I also got to partake in such things as a nap, breakfast in bed with my new waterlilies mug, afternoon tea with jam and cream in our living room with my own mom, friends for dinner and rhubarb cake, I got to read three whole newspapers, watch a bit of Mad Men, go to the park, go out for dinner, eat ice cream on Bloor Street, and dash through a rain storm—but one that was brief enough that it was sunny by the time we all walked home.

May 14, 2017

On Mother’s Day, I am grateful for my abortion.

On Mother’s Day, I am grateful for my abortion. Which might sound intentionally provocative, but it isn’t. If you think very hard you might be able to fathom the banality of being grateful for this one thing upon which my adult life has hinged, from which everything since has come from, every single ordinary wonderful thing. Although I wasn’t always grateful—at the time such a thing as gratitude never occurred to me. To have the freedom to make a decision about my own body and my own destiny—that sounds kind of banal as well. It was 2002 and things were politically different, or at least I was isolated enough to think they were. At the time it wouldn’t have occurred to me that The Handmaid’s Tale was prescient.

But none of that is actually what I’m thinking about today, in 2017, amidst the conversations about cultural appropriation I’ve been listening to all for the last few days—except for yesterday when I took a blessed internet sabbatical. Instead, I am grateful for my abortion for another reason, for the ability my experiences of abortion and motherhood have given me to grasp nuance, hold uncertainty and hold two ideas in my head at once. “A single thing can have two realities.” My abortion enabled me to articulate this idea, to come to know the necessity of in-betweeness. It’s a point of view that many people a great deal smarter than I am have still not been able to grasp.

I was thinking about this this morning as I read Barbara Kay’s remarkable twitter timeline which must have originated in defence of her son who has been called out for supporting a “cultural appropriation prize” in defence of another editor who has (seemingly) been set-upon by the twitter mobs. I’ve never seen such an example of one misguided offensive thing spiralling into a whirlwind of absolutely abhorrent behaviour, the kind of behaviour that would embarrass a daycare room of toddlers, with apologies to toddlers. Barbara Kay daring to make a terrible thing even worse by for some reason claiming that positive experiences of Indigenous people in Canadian residential schools had been censored from the official report, which Kay hasn’t even read. (“Is there no subject matter you don’t know about that you feel qualified to opine on?” asks Maggie Wente on Twitter.)

It was all so preposterous that I did the thing that no one should ever do, which is click over to Barbara Kay’s timeline where she was retweeting some guy who’d tweeted, ‘Nothing says “I love you, mom” like a child you didn’t abort.’ And here, I thought, was exactly the problem. A person who’d think that was the reality of abortion and motherhood would be the person limited enough not to understand how one could support free speech and respecting Indigenous cultures. Not to see that Black Lives Matter means that all lives matter. The kind of person who doesn’t seem to get that you can find female genital mutilation appalling and still not be a raging racist, or even be a feminist who supports the right of other women to do what they like with their bodies—adorn it with a headscarf, even. That women who have abortions might be the same women who’ve mourned miscarriages, or who celebrate life-saving techniques that make it possible for babies born as early as 23 weeks to go on to thrive. These are also, I must point out, the same people who REFUSE to understand that most late-term abortions are performed on babies that were desperately wanted but nonviable due to fetal abnormalities. People who don’t get that a person like me who was so grateful for her abortion at six weeks can understand that for many women “choice” can be the lesser of two tragedies.

I am grateful for my abortion, because my experience as a pro-choice woman has informed so much of my understanding of power structures and oppression . It’s why I’m not sure “debate” is the answer, because I’ve had to stand on the street corner “debating” my bodily autonomy with a twenty year old Catholic boy, and I’m not sure it really got me anywhere. It’s why I know that “Yes, but…” is usually a better answer, and that sometimes we have to acknowledge that people really are the experts on their own lives and experiences. That listening is usually the best course. That we all have a lot to learn from each other. That sometimes the things that make us uncomfortable are the real things, and that grey areas exist for a reason and we have a lot of discover where they do.

If not for my abortion, I might think that questions have easy answers, that the world has easy answers, that life is uncomplicated, tidy and straightforward. I might not even understand that this can be true: if not for my abortion, I wouldn’t have my children. So on Mother’s Day, I’m more grateful than ever.

May 12, 2017

In a system where all things are equal…

In a system where all things are equal, debate is fine & noble thing. But all things are not equal. “Debate” is unbalanced from the get-go. I’m thinking too about people who’d like to debate me against my bodily autonomy—I know how awful that feels, and it’s not a fair debate either. For those without stakes in the game, for whom the exercise is rhetorical, debate is even fun. But it’s not when the stakes are real, your body, your life.

Along the lines of what wrote, instead of defending misguided good intentions, why not put your efforts toward real change? Read Indigenous writers and people of colour. Change your own mind even. Think is a verb.

I appreciate your article and I don’t think you’re wrong, but for some people “debate” is a lot to ask. They’ve got lives, culture and bodies on the line. Like all things, it is complicated. Which you know already…

I don’t know that someone should lose their job for holding an opinion, but what about for doing their job ineptly? Like for commissioning works on cultural appropriation by Indigenous writers, say, and then writing an editorial that begins “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation…” An editorial that isn’t even very good! Some claim it was satire, but that we can’t tell says something about the work AND culture of white supremacy we live in. Anyway, this is all ridiculous and grown men are behaving like petulant children when they should be in bed.

“This should not be collapsed with the idea that writers/thinkers/journalists/activists thus don’t have the freedom to write.”

One more thing: super-sensitive jargon-talking left-wingers are sometimes really annoying. But is the answer to that to be a giant asshole? There are annoying people all over the political spectrum, my friends. How about we learn to live with each other?

Now go and buy a book by a writer who is Indigenous or a person of colour. And read Alicia Elliott’s article on cultural appropriation, which is the thing we should all be thinking about and asking questions about anyway—a far more productive exercise.

May 11, 2017

Did you ever know that you’re my hero?

A thing that happened to me yesterday when I was working on the second draft of my new novel was that I realized I’d totally stolen a plot point from the 1988 Bette Midler vehicle, Beaches. Not so shocking, I guess, considering I am writing a story about two women’s friendship over decades. It’s the part where C.C. Bloom ends up with her theatre director, who’d previously slept with her best friend, and you’ve got to wonder if they’re together not just C.C. wants to be but because she wants to one-up her friend. Of course, my story is a bit different from this, I assured myself, but then I realized that it even takes place around a theatrical production—albeit one that is a very very terrible campus drama society play.

I should have known this would happen. It is possible that Beaches has been seared onto my DNA. That film was my introduction to all the best things—boardwalks, photo-booths, pen-pals, and Mayim Bialik. We had the record, and I spent hours gazing at the cover, the framed pictures on the piano documenting Hilary and C.C.’s history. I was obsessed with Beaches. I think I saw it in the theatre, and then we had the video. I can recite whole passages—”You did everything you said you were going to do, everything” and “That’s my robe,” and I actually do periodically utter C.C.’s line from when she asks the bartender to carry in Hilary’s bag and her tells her, “I’ve got a bad back.” She said, “You’ve got a bad attitude.” Exactly.

The New York apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen, into which Hillary moves while on the run from her upper-class destiny, where they string Christmas lights and sing, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”—in Latin! Basically it stands for everything I ever wanted. I wanted to pound on a radiator while screaming, “Send up the heat!” Such romantic, bohemian deprivation. Remember when Hilary drove a Volkswagen bus and worked for the ACLU, and Hilary’s tousled up-do in the laundromat with C.C. asking her, “Do you really think I have talent?” I wouldn’t recall this scene at all, except I just watched the movie trailer and realized I’d spent my 20s quoting that line, not realizing I wasn’t its original author. I’m sure I’ve also had days where I’ve gone to buy a wrench because we didn’t have one. It is possible that Beaches is in fact my subconscious. I wanted that once-in-a-lifetime friendship that lasts forever, for sure—or at least until someone ends up with a terminal heart condition. (It is also possible that this film was the advent of my hypochondria.)

I loved that movie so much, and had a mass market paperback of the book on which it was based, in which Hilary Whitney  was called Bertie Barron, but still died at the end. I think I even read the sequel, Beaches II: I’ll Be There, although I’ve forgotten everything its plot contained. Interestingly (or not, all things considered) I am quite sure that Hilary Whitney’s family home in the movie is the same house at which Roger Sterling hosts his offensive blackface party and sings, “That Old Kentucky Home,” in Mad Men—when you watch a movie 3000 you come to recognize these things. Beaches is also the reason I developed a moderate crush on John Heard, and why when John Hurt died not too long ago, I wasn’t all that bothered, because at least John Heard was okay.

I am afraid to re-watch it. Not just because I have a feeling I might discover that it doesn’t hold up—the acting in the film trailer was kind of…awful—but because I might discover that everything I have I have possibly stolen from Beaches, that in fact I do not exist at all as a singular entity but instead as an amalgam of lines and ideas from late 1980s’ films in which beautiful young women die tragically (and gorgeously). What if all of us are just walking around in Gary Marshall’s dream—or even fragments of the imagination of Iris Myandowski the handwalking queer?

May 9, 2017

One more time…

Tomorrow is not the very end. Over the next few months, Mitzi Bytes and I will be on tour in Lunenberg, NS, Lakefield, ON, and festivals in Dunedin and Stratford come the fall. But tomorrow does mark the end to a veritable parade of events since the book launched two months ago, and I hope we’ll be going out in style. No doubt, really, because it’s going out with friends. Tomorrow night I’ll be part of the IFOA weekly series with my dear friend and book buddy Rebecca Rosenblum, in conversation with the excellent Amy Jones. Info and tickets are here, and I’d love to see you there.

May 8, 2017

Delicate Things Are Suffering

It rained this weekend, after raining all week, and I took the train east to Kingston to see Lake Ontario creeping up onto the shore, lapping the feet of picnic tables and swelling around metal garbage cans. Away from the shore, farmer’s fields had turned into small lakes of their own, trees and fence-posts standing in the water. It was strange to be reading this book not long after Margaret Drabble’s latest, The Dark Flood Rising, such concerns also present in two other books I’ve been reading lately, both short story collections, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost and Carleigh Baker’s Bad Endings.

In Simpson’s book, a collection of songs and stories that follow on Islands of Decolonial Love, which I read awhile back, Lake Ontario features as a character—“We call the lake Chi’Niibish, which means big water, and we share this brilliant peacemaker with the Mohawks….”

She is full, too full, and she’s tipsy from the birth control pills, the plastics, the sewage, and the contraband that washes into her no matter what. She is too full and overflowing and no one saw this coming like no one saw Calgary flooding, even though every single one of us should have.

In this story, “Big Water,” the lake is over-spilling its banks, drinking up the city. The beginning of a re-creation story, as  flood stories often are. The people in the city are trying to understand what is happening, but “the predictors are being fed a string of variables in which they can only predict unpredictability.”

Things are on the edge, askew, as they are in every story in Carleigh Baker’s debut collection, which features rushing rivers and waves splashing on the shore—not to mention an epigraph by Lee Maracle, “Fish is the hub of all our memories,” which reminded me of Zoe Todd’s Walrus Talk on Fish and Indigenous Law (“…fish in my home territory are political agents embedded in complex relations with human and more than human beings”). Although it’s the plight of bees that feature even more predominantly in this collection, the perilousness of the specie’s situation, the mystery of colony collapse disorder. “Delicate things are suffering,” is a line from “Grey Water,” the one story in this collection that is actually about drought, beside the ocean, no less, that wild and fantastic body of water, and we see the irony of the situation.  So too when a leaky toilet sends water rushing through the house, down the walls, pooling in the light fixtures. But not a drop to drink.

Chi’Niibish in Simpson’s story is that rare thing, a lake capable of sending text messages, but this connection between the land and technology is not so rare in either of these books. In fact, it’s a disregard for this connection that has allowed the delicate things to suffer. The stories in Baker’s book are very urban, set in Vancouver for the most part and the characters who venture into nature find themselves strangers in a strange land—a young woman not long out of rehab who finds herself catching salmon whose eggs will be harvested to ensure the species survival; the character who leaves her job at Wal-Mart to work on an apiary; the couples on a midnight mountain hike in the Yukon during the solstice; the unhappy couple on a canoe trip just past the Arctic Circle. This last one from the story, “Moosehide,” which has the most perfect ending, which is also the perfect ending to the book. Because bad endings make for good endings, story-wise, leaving possibilities open, the characters on the cusp of something, always something around the next corner, a blessing and a curse.

“….and we almost always survive” concludes the final sentence in Simpson’s “Big Water,” underlining the ways in which modern Indigenous stories are so often ones of resilience and survival. Not a good ending, necessarily, because why should they have to be, and the only thing worse would be if they weren’t, but still, here they are. In “Plight,” characters begin tapping maple trees in an upper-class neighbourhood, the kind of place where “they get organic, local vegetables delivered to their doors twice weekly, in addition to going to the farmers’ market on Saturday.” The narrators tell us, “We know how to do this so they’ll be into it… Let them bask in the plight of the Native people so they can feel self-righteous.” In “Doing the Right Thing,” an Indigenous woman enrolls in a gun safety class packed with rednecks. In “Akiden Boreal,” a woman relinquishes everything to connect with the land of her ancestors. In “Circles Upon Circles,” a family takes its children to harvest wild race and must face the wrath of racist cottagers.

As seems fitting in a book in which a lake is capable of texting, these are also stories of selfies, hashtags and Instagram feeds. In “22.5 Minutes,” a character attempts to divert herself from thoughts of love with a list of diversions, including, “Kate Middleton” and “I’ve Never Not Once Gotten Along With People Named Rachel.” In “Coffee,” another counts down to the moment she’ll be meeting someone she’s developed a relationship with online. And “Situation Update” is a collection of reports from a moment resembling the Alberta Floods of 2013. “Banff is flooding in the middle of summer because of global warming and probably this is the new reality.”

Which brings me back to all the water, the rain and the fish. Everything is connected, as the stories in both these works demonstrate. The end connected to the beginning, even, or at least the beginning of something new.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Mitzi Bytes

Sign up for Pickle Me This: The Digest

Best of the blog delivered to your inbox each month!
Twitter Pinterest Pinterest Good Reads RSS Post