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May 3, 2018

At This Juncture: A Book of Letters, by Rona Altrows

“Dear Joan [of Arc],

It is impossible to know if this letter will get to you. Personally I am agnostic and have no idea whether there is any substance to the Christian praise of life after death for the deserving. Moreover, if there is a heaven, can it be reached by Canada Post? Another unknowable…” 

The premise is this: Ariadne Jensen, a Canadian woman in her fifties, writes to the CEO of Canada Post with a modest proposal to inspire Canadians to start sending letters again (thereby increasing Canada Post’s profits). Letter-writing, for Jensen, has been a lifelong pursuit (she wrote letters to her Aunt Bella in Moosomin, Saskatchewan, from the age of six, and “[t]herefore, in the course of the years we were in postal contact, we purchased, by my calculation, at least 2,392 Canadian stamps”). Unfortunately, it would be difficult for even the most prolific letter-writer to save Canada Post single-handedly, and so she wonders instead if they could come up with a scheme whereby anyone who buys a pack of stamps also receives one of Jensen’s letters, one of her actual letters, or a letter she’s written to a historical figure (see Joan of Arc, above, or another to Lady Gaga) or even fictional letters she’s created between historical figures—from General James Wolfe to his mother, from Helen Keller to her lover, etc. etc. And in reading these letters, Canadians would be inspired to go out and write more letters of their own, buy more stamps, and so it goes. And Canada Post continues on into the future, a venerable institution.

There is no response from the Canada Post, and so Jensen rescinds her offer to write demographically targeted letters in exchange for a small office space, but her project continues and takes the form of Rona Altrows’ new book, At This Juncture: A Book of Letters. Comprising all the different kinds of letters outlined above, which means this book is basically a collection of stories, some of which are linked, and as the book progresses the reader gets a stronger sense of who Ariadne Jensen is and also of the characters who populate her world.

I do have a vague suspicion: I have a suspicion that Rona Altrows herself (an award-winning writer who has published two previous books of short fiction) has a hobby similar to that of Ariadne Jensen, writing gorgeous letters between fictional figures and then she amassed a nice pile of them and then faced the challenge of turning them into a book; i.e. the conceit of Jensen and the effort to save Canada Post was secondary to the book’s actual content, and it’s true while the former is charming, the latter is richer. It’s true too that this is a book that’s targeted toward a very specific audience, but I am that audience and I loved this book.

I love letters. I still don’t write as many as I should, but I try to make up for it with thank-you notes and Christmas cards. I love reading collections of letters (Blanche Howard’s and Carol Shields’ is my favourite), and also epistolary novels, I love writing about things that arrive in the post, and like Ariadne Jensen, I too have lamented the postal system’s decline. And so At This Juncture was right up my street. The prose is beautiful, each letter compelling, and I was curious about the organization of the book, its structure, the poetic fragments that introduced each section. I loved pondering the connections between the letters, wondering what each one’s point of origin might have been, and also enjoyed the glimpses into so many different worlds, different lives. Ariadne Jensen is a memorable character—she reminded me of Lillian Boxfish. And she has partially succeeded in her endeavour, it seems, because upon finishing At This Juncture, what else could I do but go buy a pack of stamps? (With bees!)

May 2, 2018

Time Traveling Books

If you didn’t hear my books column on CBC Ontario Morning today, you can listen again on the podcast.

April 30, 2018

What Goes Around: Remembering Bill 160

I was a special kind of stupid in 1997, the kind you can really only be when you’re 18-years-old and you think things are simple. I think that was the year in which a more worldly classmate drew me a diagram to explain the political spectrum, because the only thing I knew was that once there were Nazis and that there hadn’t been communists since history ended a few years before. None of it seemed relevant. We weren’t political people. I knew that my grandparents voted NDP, because they always had a lawn sign, but we regarded that as an eccentric quirk, like a hat with cherries on a little old lady. I didn’t know the stakes of anything. I was in my final year of high school, and then our teachers went on strike, and for two weeks we had sleepovers every night, and it was also the first time I got drunk.

When the strike was over, I recall a couple of teachers expressing vague disappointment that more students hadn’t joined them on the picket lines, and I found this comment outrageous. We were students, I remember thinking, and we had no business choosing a side. A side in a conflict that, from where I stood, seemed abstract and complicated. I didn’t read the fine print. I don’t think I read any print. It was easier to be neutral. Politics is not my problem, I remember thinking. What’s my problem is that my school year is being disrupted, and all I care about is that the grown-ups work it out so that everything could get back to normal.

Somewhere out there exists a photo of a group of protesters in my town and I’m in the group holding up the placard that says, “We Are The Future: Listen to Us!”  I don’t remember why I went to this event when I was so firmly committed to my neutrality (and also sleepovers and getting drunk) but I think it was some sort of student-organized thing at a union office and it was very exciting and romantic to be part of it. I’d never held a placard before. And now when I think about what was written on my placard, I definitely want to die, because for all my imploring of “Listen to Me/Us” I had absolutely nothing to say. A day in the life of a human vacuum.

The protests in 1997 were against the government’s Bill 160, which was to redefine how education was funded in Ontario. And while it’s doubtful I would have been swayed from my determined, “Don’t put me in the middle of this, bros!” stance, I wonder if something might have been different if I’d been tapped on the shoulder and respectfully told, “In twenty years, your children will be going to schools where the bathrooms are falling apart, where there aren’t custodians to sweep the floors, or education assistants to support a growing segment of the population with complex needs, the office is partly staffed by parent volunteers, and there will be a $15 billion backlog in school repairs.”

I joined the School Council at my children’s school in September, which has given me a window into what teachers and administrators are dealing with right now, and even just being in the school more often (like every day two weeks ago when I was doing admin work for a fundraising program) has informed my perspective. I’m thinking about John Snobelen, who was Minister of Education in 1997, and his comments about “manufacturing a crisis in education.” And, well, here we are, two decades later. As our Parent Council works harder and harder to fundraise and fill in gaps, as teachers exercise amazing feats of ingenuity to keep children learning in buildings that are crumbling and where resources are spare. The education funding formula does not serve anybody. The system, as it is, is not sustainable. And that Ontarians at this moment in time would be considering electing another Conservative government parading promises of spending cuts is such an absolute nightmare. It would be a disaster.

I’ve been thinking a lot about public schooling since September, about how it’s not a sexy cause, about how all the philanthropists who seem to be the only ones able to fund anything these days send their children to private school anyway so it’s not on their radar. How it’s abhorrent that the state of our education system is such a low priority for so many Ontarians. Just imagine the repercussions of the province not having made a serious investment in education for decades—or maybe we don’t have to imagine. I wonder about the cuts to educational assistants and how history might have been different if the perpetrator of the van attack in Toronto had received exemplary support during his school years. I’m thinking about the children who are growing up now and who will become our nurses, computer programmers, lawyers, surgeons, police officers, foresters, novelists, social workers, and engineers. I’m wondering about the effects of our children growing up in an inferior system where they’re made to understand that nobody with power thinks they deserve any better.

We were warned—that’s the worst part. There I was with my stupid neutral placard, and I wasn’t listening to anybody. Did I really think the teachers enjoyed their labour action? Full disclosure: there are always people who are never happier than when they’re taking labour action because it’s exciting and romantic, the way I felt when I was holding a placard, and those are the people who put a bad taste in my mouth regarding politics anyway, those who see politics themselves as an end rather than a means to the end…but I digress. It’s a preoccupation with these people that made me think that neutrality was a noble stance, when our teachers were so clearly right. They saw it coming.

I am absolutely ashamed now when I look back and realize I did nothing, and now my children (and your children!) are paying the price.

April 27, 2018

Back to the Future, by Kim Smith

When I was about seven or eight-years-old, Back to the Future was my favourite movie. Marty McFly was so unfathomably cool hitching a ride on his skateboard around town, and the movie suggested a perfectly ordered universe where there was such a thing as destiny (and  density) in that mom was always going to fall in love with dad, Michael J. Fox actually invented rock and roll, and the bully wouldn’t triumph. I mean, just as long as no one disrupted the Space Time Continuum, obviously. In a perfectly ’80s anecdote, I will tell you that I once tried to install a flux capacitor (I think it was a a coat hanger) to make a time machine out of my Dukes of Hazzard Big Wheel. Sadly, it didn’t actually work, probably because I couldn’t get any plutonium.

A few months ago, I decided it was finally time for us to sit down and watch Back to the Future en famille. (“Your kids, Marty! We’ve got to do something about your kids!”) And unlike many movies that had delighted me once upon a time (The Goonies? So shrill!) Back to the Future held up perfectly. 33 years later, Marty’s suspenders/puffy vest outfit just works somehow, the Huey Lewis is fantastic, the ’80s are the future arrived at, and the jokes are still funny—remember Uncle “Jailbird” Joey and “get used to those bars, kid?” Plus, Wayne from The Wonder Years in a Davy Crockett hat.

Harriet loved Back to the Future as much as I did when I was her age, which has made the new Back to the Future picture book an especially coveted item at our house.

Part of Quirk Books’ series of nostalgic pop-culture picture books (whose titles include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the X Files and E.T.) by Canadian illustrator Kim Smith, these books are a kids’-eye-view of the pop-classics we grew up loving. Skipping some bits—the Libyan terrorists, George McFly as a peeping tom, the whole “Calvin Klein” mix-up surrounding Lorraine and Marty’s underwear—the film’s plot is told in picture book form, right down to the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance and the disappearing photo of Marty and his siblings in front of the wishing well.

Will Marty be able to teach his dad to stand up for himself, reunite his parents, invent rock and roll, and drive his De Lorean by the Hill Valley clock tower at the precise moment that lightning strikes, by which powering his journey back to the future? Well, no spoilers here, but I’ll tell you that the story ends with Doc Brown and Marty heading off on another time travelling adventure.

“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads…” 

April 26, 2018

This Week’s Reading

April 25, 2018

This is not okay

On Saturday I came across a scene that was surreal, whose pieces I couldn’t put together until the whole thing was explained to me. My husband was standing on the corner of Bloor Street and Spadina Avenue with our children picking up litter as a part of our neighbourhood clean-up—and this man was screaming at him about feminism. Not very articulately, mind you, and one got the impression from this man’s oration that he wasn’t one of the world’s great thinkers. He was yelling, “Fucking feminists. Go to India! That’s where they need you.” Which, incidentally, is one of my favourite rhetorical strategies, enabling a speaker to be misogynist and racist at once. And my husband was being remarkably patient for a person who was being screamed at while picking up litter in the street with his children. He kept saying, “Raising up girls doesn’t mean bringing other people down.” Repeating it like a mantra. Eventually the man continued on his way, no doubt to an engagement that was probably very pressing. And I realized the origin of this conflict, which was the button my husband wears on his coat, a button from the Women’s March in January.

If the brutal events of Monday afternoon had never happened (and I refuse to call it a tragedy. A tragedy suggests something inevitable, natural, but terrible. Brutal murder is not a tragedy) then that weird scene I came upon on Saturday would be an amusing anecdote, that one time my white husband was screamed at for feminism and told to go back to India. A bizarro version of the status quo—but what happened Monday affirms that this is the status quo. Attitudes like this man’s, and that of a man who’d see fit to run down a street full of women, are shockingly widespread and normal. And of course not everyone who holds those opinions is screaming on a corner or partaking in a murderous rampage. That’s not the point. Obviously these men are unhinged, but my point is that anti-feminist rhetoric is the fuel.

It is not so much that a man could hate women enough to feel entitled to go out and commit an act of mass murder that surprises me—I was ten years old in 1989 after all. This is the world I’ve come of age in. I also know that Monday’s violence is really not such an anomaly—Canadian women are murdered by their male partners all the time. But what continues to baffle me again and again are the people who refuse to see it. The people who claim that misogyny is not a thing, and that strong women don’t need feminism, and even that feminism is hurting men. Even worse: that feminism is the cause of this kind of violent behaviour, as though women have brought it on themselves. Fully absolving us all from taking responsibility for our part in perpetuating a culture that teaches men to act this way.

This is not normal. This is not okay.

April 24, 2018

It Begins in Betrayal, by Iona Wishaw

Oh my gosh, I am in love. I’ve been noting Iona Wishaw’s Lane Winslow mystery series since the first title came out in 2016, most because of the spectacular cover design. But it wasn’t until Friday that I’d actually had a copy in my hands—her latest, It Begins in Betrayal —and started reading. Two days and 360 pages later I finally put the book down an unabashed Lane Winslow/Iona Wishaw convert. The book was brilliant! Absolutely in the spirit of Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane/Peter Wimsey mysteries, but smart and fresh in its own right. For lovers of cozy mysteries and British police procedurals—there’s even a murder investigation in which evidence includes fragments of a broken tea set—this title will not disappoint. But of course there are three more in the series before it, so maybe go back to the start?

From where I dove in mid-action, however, it was easy to find my bearings. The novels are set in BC’s interior during the 1940s, and by this fourth title ex-British Spy Lane Winslow who retired to Canada after a tumultuous war is in the throes of love with Police Inspector Frederick Darling—there is a reference to the first time they met when he arrested her. There’s a lot going on here—a woman’s body has been discovered in a remote area with suspicious injuries, obviously murder. But before Darling is able to investigate, he’s called away for a meeting with a mysterious government agent asking questions about the downing of his Lancaster bomber four years before in 1943, an event that killed two men in his crew. And the questions he’s being asked are not so straightforward—turns out Darling is about to be charged with murder, a hangable offence.

Thankfully Darling has Lane Winslow in his corner, with her wits, savvy, and intelligence connections. When he’s summoned to London and put in jail, she follows across the ocean to find out more about this vast conspiracy that’s engulfed Darling and his reputation—and can’t help turning up contacts with people from her espionage days whom she’d fled to Canada in hopes of ever avoiding. Could what’s happening to Darling have something to do with her after all? And is she willing to put her own life on the line to save him by travelling into Berlin to spy on the Soviets? If she does, will it even work?

As Darling waits in jail, and Lane works with his lawyer to figure out the real story of what’s happening, Darling’s subordinate back home is at work solving the murder of the woman in the woods, which also has ties to the woman’s family in England and her sister who’d been jilted decades before, and he and Lane assist each other via a couple of rare and miraculous transatlantic phone calls, thereby weaving this wide-reaching story neatly together. And it was such a pleasure to read it, the humour, the intelligence, the underlying feminism. Lane on the world of espionage: “…she was beginning to think the entire enterprise was run by a group of men who had never advanced past the age of thirteen.” The writing was wonderful, the plotting rock-solid, and I adored these characters. Can’t wait to delve into the backlist and discover what I’ve been missing.

April 20, 2018

The Bagel King, by Andrew Larsen

We love Andrew Larsen’s new book, The Bagel King, about Eli, whose Sunday morning ritual involves his grandfather arriving with bagels fresh from the bakery. Sometimes Zaida lets Eli come with him, and Eli gets a pickle from the big jar behind the counter, but usually Zaida comes to him. With the bagels. Except one Sunday he doesn’t! Turns out Zaida slipped on some schmaltz and hurt his tuches—and one of the best parts of this book is the Yiddish glossary which means we now know how to say “tuches.” Zaida’s injury has taken the best thing out of Sunday for not only Eli, but also for Zaida’s neighbours, who’d come to rely on his bagel deliveries as well. And so the next Sunday Eli steps in to fill the gap, and it becomes apparent that the bagel kingdom is something a person can inherit. And good thing—because what’s a Sunday without bagels, Zaida asks, in this story about intergenerational relationships, family and neighbourhood connections, the importance of ritual, plus pickles and carbs. “Warm. Chewy. Salty. Bagels were the best thing about Sunday. The best thing, that is, except for Zaida.”

April 19, 2018

What that chip means

Everything about the world that I didn’t learn from reading I know about from the stretch of city block below our front windows which are usually open in the summer. Every few months, a couple breaks up while sitting on our garden wall, and other couples break up elsewhere but not before fighting on our curb in the middle of the night. I’ve learned so much from snippets of conversation from people passing by, from people riding by on their bikes screaming at someone on the phone, and from the disproportionate number of individuals who stand outside rapping, beat-boxing or singing acapella. We still wonder about the person who once breezed past on his skateboard while demanding of someone on the phone this curious question, “Who goes deep inside you?” Who indeed?

I don’t get out much. And can you blame me? I’ve got British crime dramas on Netflix, and plenty of books, and venturing outside would only mean engaging with all the weirdos outside my door. Next year I’m turning forty, I work from home, and I’m pretty ensconced in my bubble. I like my bubble. But the price of my bubble is that whenever I go outside of it, I’m tremendously uncomfortable. It is most likely that I’ve been more socially awkward in my life than I am right now, but I’ve never been so aware of it. It’s like walking around with a sign on my back, but I’m not wise enough to decipher it—so I imagine every possibility.

The other week I spent the afternoon in a coffee shop while waiting to pick up my daughter, and while the place had a certain charm and also wifi, it was kind of shitty. But crowded, so the only place available to sit was at this counter at a window where the sun was too bright even though it was overcast. Two hours on a stool made my back hurt, because I am old, and there was no place to rest my feet because the part of the wall that was under the counter was a part of the wall that was nearly falling off the wall. But the tea was good, and there was baked goods. I had work to do, so I sat at my laptop, feet dangling, and listened to curious conversations from young Bohemians, like about whether it was a good idea to apply for a job at Soulpepper (“because of all the drama” [ha ha, but it wasn’t a joke]); about “Savoury Scone Lady” who comes and clears them out of the cheddar thyme scones on most mornings and refuses to make a special order so that they never have any left for the rest of the day, “But it’s good for business,” and there’s the quandary; and about the differences between math metal and Dungeons and Dragons metal, which are both genres of nerd metal—who knew? What a think to imagine yourself as a central character, and then to receive these glimpses into worlds, cultures, stories, in which you do not remotely factor.

It was not a bad afternoon. It was just strange to think about how much of the world goes on without me, how much of the world manages not even to ride its bike past my house screaming obscenities. My angst was existential, but then it usually is. I’d posted a photo on Instagram of my tea cup, which was a chipped cup. And then someone posted a comment: “Oh, Kerry, I don’t even want to tell you what that chip means.” I didn’t know this person. I thought, “If you don’t want to tell me, then why even let me know the the chip has meaning?” I’d just assumed it was part of the wall-falling-off-the-wall aesthetic of the place. I’m pretty  accustomed to crockery chips—have you looked in my cupboards?  But it turns out that I had been had.

Because I am totally normal, I went for the logical conclusion regarding what that chip means. Naturally, it’s the mug they all ejaculate in. Obviously. All coffee shops keep such a mug in reserve, maybe having a ceremonial communal wank at closing time on Fridays. And everybody knows about this except me, and I’m such an idiot that I unwittingly took a photograph as evidence and posted it on Instagram.

I couldn’t think of any other possibility, and did what I always do it times of distress, which is, I called my husband. I said, “I think I drank from the jizz cup.” He said, “The jizz cup? What’s a jizz cup?” I said, “It’s the cup they keep at hipster coffee shops and all ejaculate into, and then they serve people with ugly winter coats their tea in it.” He said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I don’t know, but this person on Instagram doesn’t even want to tell me what that chip means, and what else could it mean?” He said, “I don’t know, but probably not the jizz cup.” He said, “There’s no such thing as the jizz cup.” And I said, “How do you know? As Princess Diana’s butler Paul Burrell once reported the Queen informed him, ‘There are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge.’

We googled it. I am still not sure what the chipped cup means, to be honest, and maybe I am only underlining my humiliation, but the most we were able to discern was that chipped mugs are extremely unhygienic. Chips can harbour all kind of bacteria that cause disease…but honestly, who cares? It’s the reason I was born with an immune system. And if I seem particularly blasé about it, it’s only because it’s better than the jizz cup.

April 18, 2018

My Garden, So To Speak…

The internet is awful, and this week I met the exciting milestone of my first report of a threat to my personal safety on Twitter. Obviously, they found the threat doesn’t violate their terms. To suggest the comment was something I actually find threatening is to give some sad little worm too much credit, but still, what a sorry thing when this is how people communicate, and somebody else decides it’s acceptable. Even sorrier that someone like that gets to define our online experience—and so he doesn’t. I also love the internet. I’ve also spent this week jumping through portals into rich and colourful stories and experiences, and I share links to these places on Twitter. Where, I find, there isn’t tremendous engagement anyway. And so in celebration of the goodness, I’m going to bring back the links round-up to my blog, that little corner of the internet that is mine. My garden, so to speak.

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