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March 21, 2019

Crow, by Amy Spurway

It sounds like a book you might have read before—Stacey “Crow” Fortune leaves her flashy Toronto marketing job behind when she’s diagnosed with untreatable brain tumours and flies home to Cape Breton to face her fate, returning to the chaos of her mother’s trailer and grappling with the struggles of the community she thought she’d left behind. There is death, impoverishment, addiction, and long-buried family secrets—same old sad-sack CanLit, right? But wait. Because Crow, Amy Spurway’s debut novel, is a comedy, both larger than and bursting with life. Instead of a “bucket list”, Crow has a “fuck it list,” items she just can’t with anymore, which includes suffering fools or putting up with anybody’s bullshit. She’s calling it as she sees it, even if she isn’t always seeing it right, and she’s my favourite unabashed, fierce and brilliant heroine who has both a way with language and some neurological issues since Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia in the Netflix series Russian Doll.

Part of the joys of Russian Doll was its ensemble cast, and so too it is with Crow. Crow comes home to her two best friends, Allie and Char (who has also just returned home with her baby whose father is a Congolese diamond smuggler, and who is also deaf in one ear and says most words the way she’d always heard them: “F’eyed known there was a bomb fire, ida brung some bleeding’ marchmallows.” Plus there’s Crow’s mother, Effie, a long suffering housekeeper at the Greeting Gale Inn; Effie’s gossiping sister, Peggy; her old flame and pot dealer Willy the Gimp; plus Becky Chickenshit, Shirl Short, Bonnie Bigmouth, Duke the Puke, and the Spensers, Crow’s dead father’s family who ran the mines that kept the locals in employ (and sometimes killed them) for generations.

It’s a meandering plot, but then what journey towards death isn’t? And there were moments where I wondered if Spurway was really going to be able to pull this off, a comedy novel about serious business with a cast of hilarious misfits that could come close to bordering on caricature. The most incredible material but it requires authorial deftness to do it right—but Amy Spurway is the real thing. Her glorious sentences are something to behold in, from the very first few: “I come from a long line of lunatics and criminals. Crazies on one side of the family tree, crooks on the other, although the odd crazy has a touch of crook, and vice versa. I am the weary, bitter fruit—or perhaps the last nut—of this rotten old hybrid, with its twisted roots sunk deep in dysfunctional soil.”

The adjective “brave” gets thrown around all too often in regards to literature, but I’m going to pitch it here, because it’s right for a variety of reasons. First of all, a book about death—and mental illness, and disability, and abortion, and spousal abuse, and class, and poverty—and the narrative takes no shortcuts or shies away from the hard stuff. I kept waiting for the part where it veered off course or fell into the saccharine, but that point never happened. Crow delighted me and amazed me the further I read, with its freshness, its daring, its refusal to conform (and the projectile vomiting). The bulbs that Crow finds in her mother’s trailer, and what comes up in the spring—it’s all just perfect (but no spoilers). And oh my gosh, the ending—it was literally stunning. The narrative entire is a veritable tightrope walk, a feat that’s performed with style and verve, and it’s absolutely dazzling.

“And then there’s the bigger, more grandiose questions about will happen when I’m gone,” Crow considers. “Where am I going? Anywhere? Nowhere? Somewhere? Somewhere good? Will there be tea and squares and laughing and crying and swearing there, because if there isn’t, well then I don’t want to go.” And you really can’t blame her. After 300 pages in this incredible novel, I wasn’t ready to be finished either.

March 20, 2019

Books on the Radio

I was talking books on CBC Ontario Morning today and am really excited about my choices. You can listen again here—I come on at 42.00.

March 19, 2019

Notes Towards Recovery, by Louise Ells

There is a sense of the foreboding in the first story of Louise Ells’ debut collection Notes Towards Recovery, a story called “Erratics.” “I wonder what’s left,” the narrator wonders, considering the place in Ontario’s Muskoka region where her family had spent their summers during her childhood. “Later, I’d read about the Lindbergh case in one of the Reader’s Digests that lined the bookshelves of every privy on the Lake,” she explains, and she fears for her younger brother from the time he is a baby, as he grows up five years younger than she is, and the story keeps returning to the big rock the children jump from into the lake. Is someone going to get hurt? But what happens turns out to be something the narrator never even thinks to anticipate, and this is a point underlying the stories in this collection, how different fate is from the stories we’re told about who we’re supposed to be, and how far what really happened is from the memories we carry.

Before I read these stories, I was first intrigued by Louise Ells’ biography—working as a chef, a roofer, co-pilot on a submarine, and she would eventually write her doctoral dissertation on the works of Alice Munro. And Munro’s influence shows in these stories, which are very much Ontario stories, most of them set outside of Ottawa in Renfrew County. They are concerned with memory, with history, and are wary of nostalgia. Even in those golden long-ago summers, husbands were cheating, mental illness was ignored, pregnant girls were sent to an aunts, and same-sex relationships were considered deviant. And the protagonists of Ells’ stories are left to grapple with those history, which they struggle to let go of, even with the trauma. Trying to make their way forward into the future: the story “Mirrored” begins: “I thought I’d manage without a map.” Spoiler: It’s not so simple.

I liked these stories a lot, although the collection itself might have benefited from some pruning—the stories near the beginning of the book were stronger than those towards the end, although it might also have been that there are twenty-one stories in the collection with recurring themes and ideas, and they’d lost their freshness as I got to the final third and started to blend together. Or possibly this is a story collection that’s not best read straight through, one story after another. But that is how I read it, not least because most of these stories themselves were strong and compelling. Notes Towards Recovery is a remarkable debut.

March 18, 2019


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.

March 15, 2019

Moon Wishes, by Patricia Storms, Guy Storms, and Milan Pavlovic

It was no contest what book I was going to write about for #PictureBookFriday this week, which has been the week of our March Break staycation, a marvellous week of travelling around town and taking in the best of what Toronto has to offer, which has included the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Gardiner Museum, the library, a family swim, a return visit to Winter Stations at Woodbine beach, St. Lawrence Market and the Old Spaghetti Factory, and then yesterday, which was everybody’s highlight: a trip to see The Moon: A Voyage Through Time at the Aga Khan Museum, which was extraordinarily rich, and wondrous, and fascinating.

And which gave us a deeper appreciation for Moon Wishes, a new picture book from author/illustrator Patricia Storms, and one that is is written along with her husband, Guy Storms, and illustrated by Milan Pavlovic. And what a treasure this team has produced, a gorgeous story with images just as beautiful, a story about what the moon shines on, which just happens to be everything. (One of my favourite parts of the moon exhibit was the artist’s statement by Luke Jerram, who created the illuminated moon replica, who described the moon as “a cultural mirror.”)

“If I were the moon, I would paint ripples of light on wet canvas,” the book begins, and we see a school of fish swimming in the moon’s reflection. We see the moon shining over a group of migrants, all their belongings on their backs: “I would wax and wane over the Earth’s troubles…wishing peaceful sleep for worried hearts.” The moon is a constant, lighting up the darkness, always changing, just like everything is. “I would be a beacon for the lost and lonely…lighting the way home” And shining on all the creatures everywhere, in the sea, and on the land, in the woodlands, and on the coasts. Connecting all of us, both big and small.

March 14, 2019

Heavy Flow, by Amanda Laird

I may read a lot, but it’s never a challenge to name one single title in answer to the proverbial demand, “Name a book that changed your life.” Always, it’s Taking Charge of Your Fertility, by Toni Weschler, which I read ten years ago, shortly before becoming pregnant with my first child. And while I’d had a fairly good idea of how to get pregnant before reading the book, and had even been pregnant once before but completely by accident, there was so much more I didn’t know than what I did about the things my body had been doing for years, things I’d never paid any mind to. I learned things about vaginal mucus that blew my mind, and I’ve never looked back. But I’ve also not thought about it all much deeply a whole lot since, especially since I finished having children. My menstrual cycle, I’ve been thinking, is now pretty much redundant—but then it turns out that fertility is only the tip of the menstrual iceberg. (And there’s an image to keep in mind.)

And then along comes Amanda Laird to inform me of what I’ve been missing, first with her Heavy Flow period podcast (which I’ve become devoted to) and now her new book, Heavy Flow: Breaking the Curse of Menstruation. A book that shatters the myth that fertility is what the menstrual cycle is all about. Laird comes as menstruation from the perspective of a holistic nutritionist (albeit one who was making period-positive zines two decades ago and dabbled as an amateur gynaecologist aka the friend you come to with all your weird period questions), and situates the menstrual cycle in the broader perspective of general health. Because your menstrual cycle (which is about more than just those five to seven days in which you’re bleeding) also impacts bone density, breast health, heart health, and your nervous system. Because your menstrual cycle can be a key indicator of other health problems if symptoms go awry—and if symptoms are always awry (for example, painful periods, which too many doctors dismiss as “normal) it often does mean that something is wrong. Although it’s hard to address those concerns, because of menstrual taboos—even in this period positive age in which access to menstrual products is beginning to be a major topic of political discussion, too many people are still expected to put up with and shut about period pain, and remain in the dark about how and why their bodies do what they do.

(I especially love Laird’s pragmatic view on health, and politics, and everything. In everything she does, she resists binaries, and complicates matters in really intelligent ways, which is altogether rare and refreshing.)

Heavy Flow has been a revelation to me, just as Taking Charge of Your Fertility was a decade ago. I’ve learned why my menstrual cycle is still worth paying attention to (and from the podcast, I’ve been more enlightened about peri-menopause and menopause than many other menstruators get to be), how to advocate for myself to medical professionals, and how things like nutrition and lifestyle can impact hormonal health. I also learned how the fallopian tube got its name—which was the first point in reading this book at which I exclaimed. “Oh my god!” in consternation with the patriarchy but it was not the last.

March 13, 2019

A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle

“Why all of this, my Lord and my God? Either bring the world to an end or remedy these evils! No heart can support this any longer.” Vicky Austin is reading to her beloved Grandfather, who is dying of leukaemia, and is startled when he bursts out with this utterance. And he explains, “Teresa of Avila said that, in the sixteenth century. It should comfort me that there have always been outrages to the Divine Majesty. But it doesn’t.” He points to the headline in a nearby newspaper: “The headline was a plane crash, a big one, with everybody killed.” What is particularly outrageous about the story is that after the people were killed, others had ransacked the wreckage and the bodies for money and valuables—but this is not my point here. Instead I want to talk about the uncanny way that Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin books have been speaking to the moment I’ve been reading them, even decades after they were written.

Because a big plane crash that killed everybody on board was also top of the news yesterday, 18 Canadians among those who perished on the Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed on Sunday. And Vicky Austin talks to her grandfather about how she’s been avoiding the news that summer—it’s been a heady time with her grandfather’s illness and the death of a family friend. And Vicky considers, “But not reading the paper only kept me from not knowing things; it didn’t keep them from happening.”

Grandfather, anticipating Twitter in 1980 (when the book was published), says to Vicky, “Maybe instant information isn’t good for us. We can’t absorb it.” Oh, Grandfather. You have no idea.

These books relationship to time continues to fascinate me, seemingly linear and more straightforward than the Wrinkle In Time series. And yet there is more going on than is immediately apparent—first of all, Vicky Austin’s father and another character in this book have all been involved with the research of Dr. Calvin O’Keefe, who is Meg’s companion (and eventually husband) in the Wrinkle series. Which is to say that they inhabit the same universe. But time also unfolds at a different pace than the Wrinkle books do. This book is also written more than a decade after The Young Unicorns, and yet set just a handful of months later. And finally, there is the incredible sense I have that I’m meant to be reading this books right here in 2019, and the reading experiences I’m having are so visceral. I made a chicken dish the other night that was the same dinner I made when I was reading The Young Unicorns, and I was full of Young Unicorns nostalgia. I’d only read it two weeks before, but still. I’ve found all these books so utterly absorbing.

This one is set the summer following the big road trip in The Moon By Night, after the year in New York that was depicted in Unicorns. The Austins have returned to Grandfather’s island to be with him at the end of his life, but focus is shifted when the family’s good friend dies of a heart attack during a sea rescue. The sea rescue turns out to be for Zachary Gray, who was attempting suicide after the death of his mother (who was cryogenically frozen!). And yes, Zach’s back, and as obnoxious as ever, but Vicky is a year older and able to call out his bullshit in a way she wasn’t strong enough to do before. Meanwhile, she’s found out that she has dolphin ESP and is participating in experiments with Adam Eddington at the marine biology station—not that he ever offers to compensate her for her labour, of course, though the station is a pretty bare bones operation.

Which brings me to gender and the Austins, which has shifted a bit since 1968 when the previous novel was published. I’m not saying that Mother wears pants now (because as we learned in The Moon By Night, Daddy doesn’t like women in pants). But none of her children call her “nothing” in this book for her absence of a profession, and she even contemplates doing something with her life when the time comes that the children are grown and gone. She also mentions “inverse sexism” twice, which is kind of terrible. Advising her daughter Suzy that it would only be “inverse sexism” that cheated her out of her understanding her deserved place in the definition of “mankind,” and also calling it when it’s implied that her choice to leave her musical career for marriage was somehow unprogressive. But that sexism is mentioned at all is a kind of progress, I suppose. Vicky is also much less passive in her relations with the young men who are courting her (three of them!). It’s really clear though in reading these books that Madeleine L’Engle was a decidedly unfeminist writer, never mind Meg Murry’s fierce intelligence and strength of will (and remember that Meg in subsequent books becomes just “Mrs. O’Keefe,” wife of the brilliant biologist).

(It is worth noting that Suzy Austin remains unconvinced about her mother’s explanation for “mankind.” I like that L’Engle leaves the space, the possibility, the question there.)

I would like to know more about L’Engle in relation to feminism, and I wondered if she considered it a dogma worth resisting. All the books in the series so far have been about resisting dogma in the context of religion, even as the books themselves are so religious and concerned with issues of morality and mortality. The underlying message in each book seems to be about the danger of thinking we understand everything, about God and the universe in particular. (A thing Meg Murry’s mother once told her is, “But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.”) Vicky recalls her grandfather telling her, “As St. Augustine says: If you think you understand it, it isn’t God.” Not knowing seems to be fundamental to understanding, which to a religious person is the definition of faith, but this idea is applicable for those of us who don’t have a religion too (or those of us who are trying to figure out feminism). Just as darkness goes with light, life with death, all of it bound together, this miraculous world and universe.

March 12, 2019


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.

March 11, 2019

Why I’m waiting for your next blog post

(I sent the following message to writers signed up for Blog School: Pickle Me This mailing list last week, but I think you deserve to read it too. And if you want to sign up for Blog School updates, you can do so here AND receive a copy of my free download, “5 Prompts to Bring Back Your Blogging Spark.”)

For many bloggers, the biggest impediment to actually getting to PUBLISH is the idea that maybe no one’s reading, so what even is the point? And my smart answer to this has always been that you should be blogging like no one is reading anyway—so if no one actually is reading, doesn’t that just mean you’re doing it right? 

My non-glib take on this is different, however, because I’ve never been more hungry for good things to read online, in blog posts in particular. It’s why I’ve started “Gleanings”, a weekly series (also available as a newsletter) where I collect links to all the fascinating pieces I’ve come across on the internet—articles, essays and blog posts that made me think and/or delighted me. I’m so grateful to writers who continue to craft smart posts, make thoughtful arguments, and introduce us to excellent people, places and things, all of this countering the toxic discourse we so often encounter online that’s lately rearing its ugly head in the real world. I continue to believe—because I’ve seen the evidence—that with our own small corners of the internet, we really can make the world a better place

And because I know that crafting meaningful blog posts is important to you—you were curious enough to download my “5 Prompts to Bring Back Your Blogging Spark” after all—I wanted to check in and encourage you to keep going. If you haven’t updated your blog in awhile, now is the time to do it. If you’ve written something lately that you’re proud of, I hope you’ll leave a link below in the comments so I can read it, and so my readers can read it too—because I’m not the only one who’s craving great posts to read.

So many of us are looking for goodness these days, but blogs are an opportunity to get proactive and actually make some. I’m really not kidding when I tell you that I’m waiting for your next blog post, and I promise I’m not the only one. 

March 8, 2019

The Secret Life of Alice Freeman…

Today at 49thShelf, we’re featuring an excerpt from new book Fierce: Five Women Who Shaped Canada, by Lisa Dalrymple and illustrated by Willow Dawson, which is a book I’ve been reading aloud to my family over the last two weeks, and one we’re all enjoying. In particular the story of Alice Freeman, Toronto schoolteacher in the 1880s who led a secret double-life as an investigative reporter. It’s so good, and you can read it here.

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