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January 17, 2019

This Keeps Happening, by H.B. Hogan

Don’t get too comfortable with the stories in H.B. Hogan’s debut, This Keeps Happening. Although even if you wanted to, you couldn’t, because you’ll only end up with eviscerated squirrels and a woman whose mother’s gross boyfriend has shit running down his legs, and where’s the comfort in that? But even still, it’s hard to look away, and each of these stories are really compelling, although the first couple conclude on notes that aren’t as illuminating as they’d like to be. By “A Fare for Francis,” about a cab driver in Thunder Bay whose fare doesn’t take his racist bait the wait he intends, however, I was locked in to this collection and read the entire thing on Sunday evening while soaking in the tub.

Hogan’s characters are shackled, all of them, whether by poverty and low expectations or else suburban lot lines, and if the alternative to the former is the latter, then one can see where the problems arise. In “The Babysitter,” a ten-year-old girl risks an encounter with a precocious teenage neighbour. In “The Princess is Dead,” a man despairs of his life while his wife sits in their house weeping over the death of Princess Diana. In “Empties,” a teenage girl longs for freedom and opportunity as she and her friend walk across Oshawa in an attempt to make six bucks returning bottles to The Beer Store. A conflict resolution class gets difficult in “Louis Remembers.” In “Esteem,” Alison’s middle-class dreams get trounced on and she ends up lying on the pavement. And then, “The Mouths of Babes,” which was so gross and horrifying that I had to tell my small children about it, and the darkness underlining, the mother stirring Kool-Aid, that reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.

This is a book that grew on me, and a collection whose stories, characters and geographies I’ve been thinking about in the days since I read it. The opposite of being comfortable, this is a book that—in the best ways—gets under the skin.

January 16, 2019

Sparking Joy on the Radio

I got to talk about collecting books and keeping books and purging books on CBC Ontario Morning today! I come on at 34.30. Listen here.

January 16, 2019

This is Not a Metaphor

I understood it as a metaphor: it is okay to fall. It is okay to fall, to flail, to plummet. As much as can be expected from an ordinary human, I know this. I have lived it. Accepting, and even embracing, imperfection and failure has been key to any success I’ve managed to achieve along the way. But I have never managed to embrace this idea on a concrete level, concrete being the word, which is a hard and painful surface to have one’s body strike even at a moderate velocity. And it doesn’t even have to be concrete—for a few winters midway through my childhood, I used to go skiing, and I hated it, the terror. Where is the pleasure of sending one’s fragile physical self down a steep icy hill? I used to weave my way down slowly, slowly, repeated the mantra: Please don’t let me die. And then one day I occurred to me that I didn’t actually have to endure this anymore, so I didn’t. Why would I?

I took up ice skating four years ago with my daughter, who was five at the time. The task of teaching her to skate would fall to me, because it turned out I was the best skater in the family, even though I hadn’t skated in 25 years and never really enjoyed it as a child. Winter sports are not my thing. Sports in general even really aren’t, but at least in summer it’s not cold. I have memories of skating on canals when I was little, and these are mostly memories of freezing. And sore ankles. I mean, at least with skating you aren’t sending yourself down the edges of icy mountains, and the fall is never going to be so far. But still, there is falling. Even worse, there is fear of falling.

But for the last four years, I’ve been trying to commit to enjoying the winter outdoors, and skating has been part of that. It’s fun. Of course, I don’t enjoy skating as much as I enjoy having skated, which is my favourite part of the process, followed by hot chocolate. But I like it, and it’s free, and it’s been interesting to relearn an old trick, and to be learning alongside my daughter. I think it sets a good example for her too to see that acquiring new skills is not just the jurisdiction of children, and is important to keep doing this throughout one’s life. Her father and her sister have since joined in our skating life, all of us learning together. Harriet now gives me a run for my money as the best skater in the family, and last night Iris skated around the rink multiple times without holding onto my hand at all.

But we are slow. We are slow, and we skate in terror of those fast skaters who weave in and out among us slowpokes, or else the little kids who are skating haphazardly in the wrong direction and moving right into our path without consideration for the fact that none of us actually knows how to stop. None of us skate with ease, although my children have a bit more ease than I do because they’re more comfortable with falling. They’re closer to the ground anyway, and they’re fundamentally bouncy and less breakable, and with all the padding from their snowsuits they’re well protected. Neither of them likes falling, but it happens, and that’s okay.

I, however, have never fallen. Hardly something to brag about, because I’ve only never fallen because I’ve never being moving fast enough. From the metaphor, I know that the only people who never fall are people who’ve never been high enough to do so. As a skater, I am so cautious, nervous. I have been skating for four years with so much fear of falling—and then last night it finally happened.

I skated over a leaf, a dead leaf that had blown onto the ice, and I don’t know why it so destabilized me, but I felt it, the ground no longer steady beneath my feet. “It’s finally happening,” I realized, and there was so much time to think as it did. A brief attempt at re-finding my balance, but then then it was all over, and down I went. Landing with a spectacular crash on my bottom, which was better than my head taking the impact, or my wrists. “And it’s actually okay,” is what I was thinking as I lay there on my ice, except it wasn’t entirely because I’d knocked my littlest daughter over in the process (let’s not make a metaphor out of that, okay?) and she was screaming. Attracting the attention of the ice skating attendant, who came over to see if she was okay, and, “She’s fine, she’s fine,” I said, dismissing her pain. (But she was fine. Walk it off.) And then he helped me up, and I was almost euphoric, so much so that I forgot to even be humiliated.

Because the very worst thing had happened: I had fallen. And I hadn’t fractured my elbow or even sprained my wrist, or received a concussion. I didn’t break or shatter, which is what I’d always imagined. That I was fragile—but it turns out my body is stronger than I thought. And there really isn’t even a lesson beyond that—I’m still going to skate slowly, I’m not thirsting for opportunities to fall down again. It wasn’t like one of those Instagram memes where I thought I was falling, but it turned out to be flight, because it definitely wasn’t flight as I lay there on the Dufferin Grove Ice Rink staring up at the glow of the artificial lights. It was falling, but it was fine.

January 14, 2019

Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss

I’ve been avoiding bookshops lately (except for a trip to Type Books’ new location in The Junction in December!) with a focus on reducing the overwhelming number of books on my to-be-read shelf. Which I’ve been pretty successful at with a huge tower of reading completed over the holidays, and also a clear-out of more than a few books that I decided to finally accept that I would never read. And when I finished reading Did You Ever Have a Family, by Bill Clegg, on Saturday morning (acquired from a Little Free Library; has been sitting on my shelf for months; is so incredible but also very sad) and we had no further plans for the day, I decided that what I really, really needed was a bookshop venture, and my family was kind enough to accompany me, obviously with the promise of snacks.

And what a wonderful thing, for me at least, although probably not my family, to arrive at the bookshop without an idea of what I was looking for. Something more uplifting than Did You Ever Have a Family, was my premise, though I wasn’t exactly successful on that front, but then a book need not be uplifting when it is brilliant, original and completely affecting. The book was Sarah Moss’s new novel, Ghost Wall, which only just came out (super exciting—I tend to be either six months or decades behind on all the newest things) and I’d read the review in the Toronto Star that morning. Beginning my Sarah Moss discovery, which I’ve been longing to embark upon on reading Rohan Maitzen’s reviews of her other books, which sound as intriguing as they are wide-ranging.

It’s a slim little novel whose design (in Canada, at least) is delicate and exquisite, a book made up of all kinds of competing tensions. Silvie is a teenager from Northern England whose bus driver father is an Iron Age enthusiast in his spare time, and she’s been raised on his rambles and fascinations of ancient Britons, and therefore knows how to forage for bilberries, which makes her an object of fascination for the university students her family is spending her dad’s annual leave with on their experiential archeology course. The professor and Silvie’s dad couple their skills and knowledge, leaving Silvie with the students, just a few years older than she is, worldly in a way she’s never been able to fathom. Her time with them is a brief reprieve from her father’s rigid control, but then she’s defensive around them, knowing they’re judging her parents’ accents and background. She also knows that aligning them too much will provoke her father’s wrath, whose force and dangerousness gradually becomes more apparent as the narrative progresses and underlines the novel’s idyllic setting and celebration of the natural world with something much more sinister.

Unabashedly feminist, Ghost Wall dares to question what people are really reaching for when they’re yearning for a simpler time, for an authentic kind of culture, or whiteness, or Britishness. Just what is fundamental about who we are and where we come from, and who gets to be in charge of that? It’s sharp, fast-paced, and disturbing, an exercise in minimalism and subtly. I loved it.

January 11, 2019

I think your bullet journal is stupid.

Slightly insulting confession: I think your bullet journal is stupid. I’ve always felt one could get her shit done way faster if she just does it rather than mapping out a plan to do so in especially decorative ways…but then I have really terrible handwriting and always lose my good pens, so I would think that, wouldn’t I. It’s also possible that I’m jealous of your bullet journal, because if I had one, if would probably look like my grade nine math book. And that I wanted to write a provocative headline to get you to read this post.

Which is unfair, kind of, and I also don’t really know what bullet journals are, except that people share images of theirs on Instagram (and I swear I once read a post where a person was complaining about how difficult to was juggle all seven of the bullet journals she maintains, which seems pretty obvious). I’ve also been very fortunate in that I’ve not really required lots of strategizing in order for professional opportunities to happen for me. This spring marks ten years since I quit my job to become a freelance writer, which is something I did without any of how to make it work. It seemed slightly scary at the time, but I was also caring for a new baby, which was ten times more terrifying, and my professional life really did seem to require less maintenance in comparison. So if you asked me now to recommend a route to making a living as a writer based on my own experience, my advice would be mainly: wait for people to email and ask you to do stuff. NOT HELPFUL. (Note though that nobody’s going to do that if you’re not chipping away at building your blog oeuvre, which would these days be considered “building your profile,” but I wasn’t thinking in those terms, which is probably why I was even enjoying what I was doing.)

Part of the reason I’m also resistant to bullet journals is because they seem to be part of the online entrepreneurial culture that I’ve been resisting with all my heart and soul. The kind of culture where you use hashtags like #GirlBoss and #SheHustles, and sell skincare products via a pyramid scheme, and it’s so entrenched in capitalism in the very worst way, and for most people is a dream that never comes true regardless of the hustling. I was once trapped on an airplane full of women arriving at a multi-level marketing conference, and as we were stuck on the platform, the woman beside turned and said, “So: what’s your Plan B?” And I wanted to die and there was no escape, and sometimes the internet in general feels a little bit like that.

And it’s the opposite of everything that, for me, is fundamental to blogs and online connection. It’s about human voices, not selling products. It’s about telling stories, being a human, not being a brand. My blogging courses have always been defiantly anti-marketing, anti-strategy. Don’t target your audience. Don’t outline your goals. Instead, make it up as you go along. Figure it out and grow in the process. Dare to get lost, and then report back from the place you ended up. My blogging advice was never for people who wanted to grow their audience, but instead for people who wanted to write a blog that could serve them and be sustainable. And while these days I feel like I know less about blogging than I ever did (not necessarily a bad thing— ‘It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.’ —Tom Stoppard, Arcadia), I still believe in all that. A blog, like all the best things, is a wild thing, and should refuse to be tamed with plans and bullets.

And yet. I know that while this is true, I also know that part of my resistance to being more strategic and entrepreneurial in approach to my career is that I am afraid any other approach might end in failure. When your aim is to get lost, it doesn’t really matter where you are, but when you’ve got a plan, a goal and a strategy, and well, if you fall flat on your face, people are going to know about it. But something else I’ve learned from blogging is that sometimes being afraid of something is the very best reason to go there.

But then I start to worry again—and of course I am overthinking this. To be a successful blogger is to have made a career out of overthinking things. But I also think that 75% of the nonsense people are peddling online in terms of empowerment and entrepreneurship is absolute nonsense. I probably wouldn’t even be writing this post right now if it weren’t for these sponsored posts I kept coming across on Instagram by this woman—who I hadn’t even followed because she was way too much of a shallow marketing shill—about how I can grow my business via Pinterest. Which at first I dismissed as meaningless to me and irrelevant to my interests…but then at a certain point I thought, “Gee, maybe I should sign up for her free webinar!” And there it is: I have brainwashed. The moment I consider engaging with anything called “webinar,” it’s all over. Next up, I’ll be hash tagging #bossbae. It’s like a cult, and I don’t want to join it.

But I also know that I could certainly use a little direction, professionally. How many more books could I sell, followers could I get, opportunities could I receive, readers I could find, if I set out with intentions of being more deliberate in these areas? If I gave any considerations to being deliberate at all, instead of wandering, exploring, making it up as I go along. I’ve got a lot to show for ten years of approaching things in that direction, but aimlessness comes with its own wasted energy. I’m not saying I want to hustle, but surely there is some way we can meet in the middle.

Today I listened to Amanda Laird’s Heavy Flow Podcast with Kelly Diels on “resisting the Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand,” which articulated a lot of my discomfort on this topic. Sarah Selecky does much of the same in her novel, Radiant, Shimmering Light, which surprised me when I read the book because Selecky herself has been so successful with an online business, and yet she’s also able to critique it in a really pointed way. I still don’t remotely know what I think of anything of this yet, but I’ve decided to find out by setting three professional goals for this year relating to developing my career. Which is really scary, actually, but also exciting, and I’ll keep you posted—and if I get lost, at least I’ll have something to report back on.

January 11, 2019

Deep Underwater, by Irene Luxbacher

I love Irene Luxbacher’s playful collage illustrations, and they really shine in Deep Underwater, her latest picture book. Shine literally even, because the cover features sparkles. It’s the story of Sophia, who lives by the sea and knows its secrets, and takes the reader on a journey deep underwater to share what she knows. “Deep underwater, tentacles, antennae and teeth disappear into darkness…and an abyss becomes a bottomless pit of possibilities.” Full page spreads to get lost in, with urchins, and anemones, jellyfish and seahorses. Sea turtles, starfish, sardines, and a submarine. A sunken ship where “lost treasures wait silently, patiently hoping to be found.” Sophia tells us, “Deep down, I never feel alone,” contemplating her reflection in a handheld mirror, and we see the mermaid that she is in her mind, and really, who can’t relate?

January 9, 2019

Escape Room Reads

I’ve been thinking lately about how grateful I am to everyone who has never invited me to an escape room party, and I was thinking this even before the story about the five Polish teenagers who died while trapped in an escape room facility that caught fire. There are few things I would like to do less than visit an escape room, and if I was ever forced into such an endeavour, I’d simply bring a book and read in a corner until it was time for me to go.

I’ve only ever encountered an actual escape room in fiction once before, in the story “Prize” in Jessica Westhead’s collection Things Not to Do, in which a couple of would-be entrepreneurs decide to get into the industry. “Allen works in data administration and I’m currently a cashier but I have my diploma in business communications so we’re already in an advantageous position, combined-projected-earnings wise.” Things do not go well, however, and the story is creepy sinister in a way that I now imagine all escape rooms actually are, which only underlines my aversion. No, I would definitely prefer to read a book…and the two escape-room-esque novels that I’ve read in the past week have only made this feeling stronger.

The first was Nine Perfect Strangers, by Lianne Moriarty, who has not disappointed me ever since I first read Big Little Lies, and then Truly Madly Guilty and What Alice Forgot. Moriarty is a master of compelling plots, suspense, and richly textured characters…but I will admit that this novel let me down just a little bit. About nine people who show up at a remote wellness spa, run by a woman who just might deranged, and at one point they really do all get locked in a room and it seemed very contrived and unnecessary, which is nothing I’ve ever said about a Lianne Moriarty novel before. The problem was structural—each of her characters has an incredible backstory, and there is humour and pathos, and each individual story manages to be really evocative—the has-been romance novelist who’s just been swindled in an online romance scam, the family trying to move on after the suicide of their eldest son, a young couple that’s drifted apart after their lottery win, washed up athlete whose life seems meaningless, woman whose husband has ditched her for a newest model, and the startlingly handsome man whose boyfriend wants them to have a baby, but he’s having none of it. Each of these characters should have been given a novel of their own, but to toss them all into one book like a grab-bag just seems wasteful. I enjoyed most of the book well enough, but close to the end I was really frustrated, as though this was plot for the sake of plot (like an escape room, no less) instead of a story. But by the end Moriarty had managed to tie it all up in such a way that my feelings toward the book were almost warm again, but still, this was not my favourite. Which is not to say that I’m going to give up my vow to read everything Lianne Moriarty ever publishes.

I had the opposite reaction to The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton, which I gave to my husband for Christmas and read when he was finished it. (I know what I’m doing when it comes to giving gifts.) He’d really enjoyed it and I was looking forward to appreciating for myself, and was disappointed to find the beginning a bit frustrating. It wasn’t bad, and the pace was fast, but I just wasn’t sure why it was supposed to be interesting. The way I suppose I’d be if I ever actually did visit an escape room, having to listen to all the rules and wondering why I needed to bother. Wasn’t this supposed to be fun? But it was, very quickly, Turton’s bestselling first novel that has been described as Agatha Christie meets Black Mirror. The narrator wakes up in a body belonging to a guest attending a party at a crumbling stately home where that night there is going to be a murder, and it’s up to the narrator to figure out what’s happening, and before he does he will wake up in the body of a variety of different party guests, and live the same day over again. I really liked this book, and enjoyed the twists and surprises and—except for one bit in which the twists comes because the narrator has withheld vital info from the reader—it’s all deftly plotted and very taut, and the revelation at the end about the purpose of this game which our narrator has got himself locked into turns out to be really interesting and expansive. Which is the point, I think, and the problem with escape rooms—there’s got to be a reason why you’re there in the first place.

January 8, 2019

Gleanings

January 8, 2019

Little Yellow House, by Carissa Halton

Last summer after a terrible thing happened in my city, I wrote a post about how “My favourite thing about living in a city is being able to disabuse myself of the notion that the place where I live is not a place where ‘something like this can happen.’ To live in a city is to live in a  place where anything can happen, which is actually the case with living anywhere, but in a city we know it by heart.” Which is the kind of awareness and understanding Carissa Halton celebrates in her book, Little Yellow House: Finding Community in a Changing Neighbourhood, a collection of candid essays about being part of Edmonton’s Alberta Avenue neighbourhood, an inner-city community where all kind of things happen, some awful and others beautiful.

It is important to be clear about what her book is not: an anthropological analysis of life among the lower classes, Halton and her family taking advantage of lower real estate prices, all the while taking notes on the neighbours. Because while Halton does write about the tension inherent in her story, the “irony and responsibility” (“In the worst-case scenario, my family becomes a threat. By fixing up our home and our yard, by our activism, we run the risk of increasing property values on our street, which could lead to major affordability issues in decades to come.”) she does not see herself as removed from the world she’s describing.

She begins the book by writing about moving with her husband to what had been described to her as “the shitty part of town.” The neighbourhood was closer to their jobs, would provide them a better understanding of the people they worked with running social programs, and her grandparents had grown up there. And yes, they could afford a house. “You’ll move when you have kids,” they were told, but then they had three, and they didn’t move when the children went to school either, or when the children grew, and the house seemed smaller. “And while we wished there were fewer empty storefronts along the main avenue and fewer johns trolling to buy sex, the elm trees on the boulevard shaded the streets that led to the homes of our extended family,” and there were cafes and bakeries, playgrounds, and a library. “In short,” Halton writes, “we discovered shitty is how you see it.”

She writes about, perhaps unwisely, confronting a man dumping massive quantities of broken tiles in her alley whilst being very pregnant. “Drug Houses Make Bad Neighbours” is the terrifying story of their friends who moved into the neighbourhood in 1994 and dealt with neighbours in a dodgy rental who’d threaten the when they called police, and police who’d offer advice such as, “Ma’am, you should like a very reasonable person. Can I advise you to just move?” With a journalist’s eye, she tells the life story of a man who’d end up dying of blunt force trauma not far from where she lives who was once a little boy who wanted to be an astronaut. In “Hell is Other People,” she writes about how good fences make good neighbours, and how her band of children are sometimes her neighbour’s own hell.

Her essays are about neighbour kids, the friends she found on mat leave and how they spent their days, about a friend of a friend who took in a neighbour when he was forced out of his rooming house, where he’d been sheltering feral cats. About NIMBYs, and the joys of treasure-hunting at the thrift shop, lice and bedbugs, working at a soup kitchen, about a police officer mistaking her for a sex worker while she’s waiting at the bus stop for her kids to arrive home from school. About community initiatives to deal with the sex trade on the streets where her children play, and another essay that tells the stories of women who’ve worked on those streets. About trees and birds and greenery. About going stir-crazy as a stay-at-home mom, and finding enterprising ways to make their smaller home work as their family grows.

Great cities and neighbourhoods are containers for stories, just like this book is, and every one of these is delightfully readable and well-written right down to the sentence level. And Halton is not afraid of tension, of ambiguity and uncertainty, something living in the city teaches you, and so each of these stories is suspended in a careful place, not neatly packaged or simply concluded. Which gives their culmination the effect of a walk through a city street, of glimpses, moments, and changing scenes—a most satisfying and delightful excursion.

January 3, 2019

New Year, New Teapot

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