Category: Books

Bedside summer reading

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I’m waiting on my new web site to be completed before posting photos from my sister’s wedding this past weekend. I hope that won’t be too long; as with any renovation project, it all comes down to those last technical, finicky details. The new blog is going to look so much prettier than this one that I can’t bring myself to post those gorgeous wedding pics here. Meanwhile, above, here’s what I’ve been reading this summer. Yep, that’s Girl Runner in the pile. With the fall booking up quickly, and the launch party set for Sept. 6th, I need to start selecting and rehearsing scenes for readings. (I did theatre; I’m a big believer in rehearsal before performance, and that’s exactly what a reading is.)

Oh, and about that launch party: invites are on their way, but meantime, consider yourself invited! It’s free, we’ll have food, books, entertainment, maybe even karaoke. I hashed up the Facebook invitation, by confusingly creating TWO pages for the same damn event, which is the sort of problem that comes from being a non-procrastinator born before the existence of the internet. I’ll send you to the event listed on my author page (click here), because it has far fewer confirmed guests, which doesn’t look good, somehow. Is it all about the optics? It’s social media. Of course it is.

I’m in a rambling mood, a confessional end-of-week mood. It’s been a week of big emotions and travel and hard work and waiting and celebrating and a lot of running, literally, including a personal best 10 kilometres this morning, which is nowhere near the personal bests of the best, but nevertheless had me shouting “Yes!” as I crossed my imaginary finish line. Such is the pleasure of achievement for its own sake. I even cleaned half of the house yesterday evening. A whole half of the house! And I played the piano and sang hymns. To sum up: that’s the kind of week it’s been.

All my puny sorrows

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I keep a record of the books I’m reading here (which is to say, there), but occasionally I feel the urge to write about a book I’ve read here (which is to say, here).

Last night, up far too late, I finished Miriam Toews’ ALL MY PUNY SORROWS. This is the kind of book for which book clubs were invented — a lot of book clubs are about friends getting together and drinking wine and the book is the excuse, I get that, but nevertheless there’s a genuine need underlying the concept of the book club. After finishing a heartbreaking resonant emotionally complex narrative don’t you just want to gather some friends immediately and talk about it?

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS is a semi-autobiographical novel about the relationship between sisters, one exquisitely talented and suicidal, and the other a bit of a mess and desperate to save her sister’s life. As in all of Miriam Toews’ novels, the bit characters are as vividly drawn and unique as everyone else, and humour hums silvery through the anguish and grief. But this novel feels different to me, too. It is more raw and immediate, less polished, a straight throughway from beginning to end of almost (seemingly) unmediated experience. People don’t behave like you want them to. They behave like people.

The mother of these two sisters, who has also lost her husband to suicide, is the most brilliantly drawn loved and loving independent fearless woman I can remember reading in a book, ever. Her depth of soul and lightness of spirit anchors the narrative. But even her love cannot anchor her daughters. And that seems to be part of the book’s message (though it’s not a “message” book): that we are responsible for our own lives, that we can only carry the weight of responsibility for the things that are ours to change. And the lives of others do not belong to us, even when we’re mothers. We raise our kids up with love and care, and we offer love and care pretty much forever, as long as we’re living, but that’s all we can do. The mother tells her daughter near the end of the book that letting go of a grief is more painful than holding onto it, but it’s what she hopes her daughter will be able to do.

Maybe if you’ve lost a husband and a daughter to suicide, you understand profoundly how little your love can cure or save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to save someone. That means that life is not about problem-solving, even though we may wish it to be so. We may wish to pour our minds into solutions and fix what’s broken, especially on a personal level, especially in families, and that’s a good impulse, I’m not saying it’s not. But to survive trauma and grief without becoming bitter, we have to recognize that we’re not that important. We’re not in charge of other people’s choices. We’re in charge of our own puny sorrows.

What we can offer are small, ordinary gifts. But a gift is a gift, isn’t it. It doesn’t ask for anything in return.

There’s some strangeness to reading this book, knowing Miriam Toews’ personal history, which cleaves closely to the book’s story. It’s difficult to read it as fiction, I guess.

One final observation: it’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that references so many other books. Entire poems are recited by characters, for example. I loved that. Reading as comfort and connection, as a way to speak the unspeakable. Words might not save us, but they may just console us. We read and we are less alone.

Bedtime reading, Monday evening: snapshot

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completely unrelated photos of SPRING!

8:40 PM. Home from AppleApple’s first outdoor soccer game of the season. Kevin off to his soccer game.

Me, at dining-room table, eating a late supper, Business section of the Globe open before me (nothing else available, clearly).

Him, two bowls of bedtime-snack-cereal consumed and teeth brushed, arrives at my side.

Me, hugging him, while trying to finish eating: “It’s bedtime. Would you like me to read to you, or I could play the ukulele for you, or would you like AppleApple to read you some more Harry Potter?”

Him, no hesitation: “Harry Potter!”

:::

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8:55PM

Her: “I can read you a bedtime story, Mom.”

Me: “Okay. You can start while I’m loading the dishwasher.”

Her: “It’s about this dog and a boy, and the boy can read the dog’s mind.”

Me: “Okay.”

Her: Reading out loud, stumbling over words like “array” and “campaign.”

Me: “This book uses a big vocabulary.”

Her: “Can we read in my bed now? I’ve set it up for you.”

Me, awhile later, dishwasher running, pots washed: “Sure.”

Her: “Are you coming, Mom?”

Me: “I just have to … kiss your brother goodnight … tuck in your brother … get a sheet for your brother because his blanket is too hot … tell your sister to brush her teeth ….”

Her: Waiting in a little nest she’s made for us in her bunk.

Me, climbing up: “Do you want me to read to you for a little bit?”

Her: “You can finish the chapter!”

Me: Finishing chapter.

Her: “Now I’ll read.” Stumbling over words. Patiently continuing. Laughing with genuine delight when the dog eats the boy’s pillow.

Me: “Look at the clock, honey.” [9:30 on the dot.] “We have to stop here.”

Her: Bookmarking spot.

Me: “This book really has a lot of big words. But I don’t think it’s actually very well written.”

Her: “I finished all the Magic Treehouse books …”

Me: “And we’ve already read a lot of the really good ones, like Pippi Longstocking, Charlotte’s Web.”

Her: “I’m not going to read Because of Winn Dixie. We’re reading it at school.”

Me: “I’ll bet your sister could recommend some really good books for you to read. She’s read just about everything. Let’s ask her in the morning.”

Us: Goodnight kisses.

:::
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9:35 PM
Me, back downstairs: “You are not allowed to start reading another Agatha Christie book right now!!!!”

Her, blank-eyed, glancing up at me: “Whaaa?”

Me: “Mark your page and put down the book, or I will take it away from you.”

Her: “What?”

Me: “You need to go to bed. You’re swimming in the morning!”

Her: Eyes gazing downward on page.

Me: Turning book over.

Her: Sad face (fake).

Us: Hugging goodnight.

::
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Me: Folding laundry, nearly 10 PM.

Him, coming downstairs, plopping into nearby chair: “Mom, what if video games had been invented before books? Do you think that parents would be making their kids play video games instead of reading books?”

Me: Pondering.

Him: “I mean, what makes books better than video games? At least in video games I get to choose what I want to do next. In books, the story stays exactly the same, no matter what.”

Me: Wondering if fundamentally I don’t get how the mind of a nearly-13-year-old boy operates.

Him: “Why is reading for entertainment better than playing a video game?”

Me, launching into it: “I think it’s because reading is creative. You have to see the characters in your mind. You have to make them up using symbols on a page. In a video game, it’s all there in front of you. You’re just viewing it.”

Him: “I mean, I like reading some books. But it seems like they’re less creative than video games because you can’t make any choices.”

Me: “Well, a book is a linear creation. But even a video game is limited by its own parameters. And in really good books, everything isn’t neat and tidy, and you have to figure out for yourself why characters do certain things, and you wonder afterwards what might happen next.”

Him: “I don’t do that.”

Me: “You don’t wonder why a character did something? Or wonder what might happen next?”

Him: “No.”

Me, climbing onto soapbox: “Also so many video games are extremely violent. You’re in a fantasy world where you can’t empathize with the people you’re killing. And you basically have eternal life.”

Him: “Exactly. It’s a fantasy. That’s what people who play video games want.”

Me: “Sure. I agree with you. Lots of people want the fantasy. Lots of people watch reality television too. It’s easy entertainment. I guess I just don’t really get it.”

Him, sadly: “I’m going to bed now.”

Me, feeling crummy, missing his company, hearing my ponderous long-winded lecture through his ears (have not transcribed entire ponderous long-winded lecture for the sake of brevity and face-saving)

Me, to self: “I’m the worst mother in the world.”

Self, to me: “No you’re not. Don’t get down on yourself. It’s not going to help.”

Me, awhile later, laundry folded, knocking on closed bedroom door, sitting on the end of his bed in the dark: “Maybe we can agree that we don’t quite understand each other’s preferred forms of entertainment. Maybe you can figure out how much time you think is reasonable to spend playing video games, and I’ll figure out how much time I think is reasonable to spend reading books. And then we can talk about other ways to be entertained too.”

Him, quite agreeably: “Ok.”

Me: “Ok!”

Ok. Okay? Ok.

Goodnight.

What’s precious

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We spent the Easter weekend on the farm where Kevin grew up, and his mom still lives.

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We helped her begin to sort through and organize the rooms, the closets, cupboards, drawers, nooks and crannies. This is no small project in a house that’s been home for nearly forty years.

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I boxed up books to give away, many of which had been bestsellers at some point in the past four decades, already out of date, out of style; some were too musty even to donate. It was an odd conflation of realities, having just spent several days at the British Library, where I pored over printed texts that were four or five centuries old. By what random chance did those books survive? Nothing I read in the BL would be considered great or lasting literature, though some was popular in its time; survival over the centuries was a matter more of being kept by generations of someones who were not like me, I guess, as my instinct is to purge, rather than to cling to, at least in a general sense.

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The work got me thinking about how transitory and brief are our lives on this earth. Consider my files of manuscripts in our attic. I wonder, should I burn them now so as to spare my children having to decide what to do with them, some day? What’s precious, after all?

I come home thinking that what’s precious is today.

But today is also ephemeral, which is why we keep so much, trying to keep what can’t be kept. We’ve all got our means and methods, our junk drawers, our shoeboxes. I say this as an inveterate collector and curator of the daily now, in the form of this blog, knowing that what I’m compelled to do is only fractionally more lasting than the day itself, and then only because it freezes and distorts the complicated layers of each beautiful breath and heart beat into a small, glancing story.

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I come home thinking that it’s really really important to pay attention to what you’re pouring your life into. I think: don’t worry about whether or not you’re making things that will last. Don’t worry period, actually. Make and do the things that bring you and those around you some daily sense of being loved and cared for. Be as alive as you want to be, while you’re here.

Art on the driveway

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Change. When you make art on the driveway in winter, here is what happens to it over the course of several months.
I would like to speak today about the idea of being, at least in part, a public person. I wonder how others do it. How do you manage to travel, to run to appointments, to make presentations, and dress professionally, and be brushed and unwrinkled and fresh smelling? How do you exercise and eat well and keep a sharp eye on your children’s needs, both physical and emotional? How do you clean your house and yard and fold laundry and cook food from scratch, and lovingly tuck your children in at night, and read them bedtime stories? How do you go to the soccer practices and piano lessons and swim lessons and travel tournaments and meets? How do you teach classes and welcome students and read essays and comment and mentor and remain open and flexible and funny and never bitter? How do you host meals and go to parties and celebrate birthdays and be a good partner? How do you meditate and feed your spirit and do yoga and stay fit and healthy of body and of mind? How do you continue to make art that is worthy of being called art?
I know I set the bar high, and I know it’s me doing the setting of the bar. We all have our (tragic) flaws. Mine may be that I want to do it all, big and small.
I want art on the driveway. I want books in translation. I want to run fast. I want singing. I want fun. I want to braid hair and apply bandaids and hold hands and honour all the stories. I want deep still quiet reflection. I want to stir. I want to comfort. I want invention.
And I’m sitting here in my office with the dogs, slumped on my stool rather than walking on my treadmill, with eyes at half mast and emails unanswered, wondering how exactly to do all of this. Because I really don’t know.
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advance reading copy, i.e. not for sale, still needs to be proofread, but looks awfully book-like
And then this arrives in the mail. Seeming to say: well, you’ve done something you wanted to do, woman. Now, enjoy it for a moment. So I sit on the radiator (because I’m cold because it’s still winter, this spring), and I read the first chapter out loud to myself (and the dogs).
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mirror, mirror

London album

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Westminster Abbey

It’s hard to go wrong, when photographing a city like London. Nath and I walked to Westminster from the rebuilt Globe theatre on Wednesday evening, before I left.

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London Eye

Crossing Westminster Bridge, this was the view behind us (above), with the sun shining, as if it never rained in London — which it almost never did while I was there; I had a running joke with my UK publisher Lisa Highton that she’d arranged the weather especially for my stay.

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And this was the view from the banks of the Thames as we approached Westminster. On the walkway beside the river were crowds of people, some of them tourists, some commuting home from work on foot or bicycle, and a surprising number of runners, many of them training while wearing backpacks, dodging the crowds while trying to keep up a quick pace. It looked moderately hellish, frankly, although in theory I can see the appeal of running along the river. I much preferred my morning runs in Greenwich Park, with green grass everywhere and buds on trees, and the wafting perfume of the flower gardens in the air. (No photos, however, as I was running.)

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London Eye

The queue was enormous, so it’s a good thing I hadn’t planned to go on the Eye, although it looked much more tempting up close. Each of those pods holds 25 people. Essentially, it’s a giant money-generating machine.

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Globe Theatre

Earlier in the evening, Nath and her kids and I met at the recreated Globe Theatre and went on the tour. It was as if I’d planned it: tickets for the last tour of the day were half price. You know I love a bargain.

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Tate museum, with bird

I’m going in reverse, I see, though I’m not sure how that’s happened. Perhaps it’s because, after my 20-or-so hours in transit yesterday, I’m more tired than expected, so exhausted, in fact, that it feels like I’ve entered a kind of fugue state. I have no idea if anything I’m writing here is comprehensible, but I sense this will be a longer post than usual. Brace yourselves. I’d arrived early, Bankside, to meet Nath and kids, so I popped in at the Tate, which is beside the Globe theatre. At that point in my day, I was pretty foot-sore and had lugged my laptop all over London and the Tate seemed enormous, so I stood for awhile before this painting by Dorothea Tanning, an artist I’d never heard of before; I was strangely transfixed by it — it’s quite large, and it seemed almost to move or transform, as if it held figures emerging before my eyes.

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views from the Millennium Bridge

I’d come here on my own by the underground; it took me a couple of days to become oriented to the system of overlapping lines and trains, but I had no trouble finding my way around. If I lived in London, I would never drive.

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spring, outside the Victoria & Albert museum

Earlier in the afternoon, I went to the V&A, mainly to visit the gift shop for a specific souvenir for Child-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless, and also to look at clothing and household items from the Renaissance.

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British Library

That final day in London was crammed to max, but mostly I spent my time here, at the British Library.

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inside the BL

It’s a new building (built within the last 20 years), and it’s bustling and vibrant. The individual Reading Rooms are packed, yet quiet, and in order to protect the valuable and rare material that can be accessed by anyone with a Reader Card (like me!), people are only allowed to bring in a limited number of items, which one carries into the reading room in a large plastic bag, provided by the library. Pencils only. No drinks, no edibles of any kind. Laptops permitted only in certain areas. I discovered on the first day the importance of arriving early, finding a desk, and staking it out for the rest of the day.

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train, before and after arrival at the Charlton station

On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I commuted to the BL by train and tube.

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escalator inside London Bridge underground station

I have a fear of heights. It took me the better part of the week to conquer the fear and be able to ride the escalator without clutching the handrail with a death grip, and literally going weak in the knees. Miraculously, I trained myself out of my fear by the end of the stay. Breathing exercises. For serious.

I have no photos from the parties I went to on Monday evening. It rained, but I brought along a little umbrella that fit into my satchel. I did not wear a dress, but tried to look suitably glamourous. This was achieved with mascara, earrings, and my gold shiny top, three things I never wear under ordinary circumstances. I like to go unadorned most of the time, so that when I dress up the difference is measurable; start with a low bar, that’s my advice.

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Trafalgar square

On Sunday, I rode the train and tube for the first time all by myself, and met my agent and my US publisher for lunch. Afterwards, Nath met up with us, and we went to the National Portrait Gallery, which is right behind me in the photo above. Having been once, I would go again, and again. I will never tire of faces.

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Tower of London, foreground, by the river

Saturday, Nath and I walked all around the old city of London. We walked at least 8 kilometres, according to Nath’s calculations. All of the old buildings are surrounded by new ones. Transposing oneself back in time requires imagination, but that’s fine by me. I’ve got plenty of imagination.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral

Take for example, St. Paul’s Cathedral. This building is really really old. But it’s still not as old as the St. Paul’s Cathedral that existed during the time period I’ve been researching (1530-1660). That St. Paul’s Cathedral burned down in the Great Fire of 1666 (which destroyed two-thirds of the city of London). The “new” Cathedral was built in the same location, but not to the same design.

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Nath knocking on the door of St. Paul’s Cathedral (as instructed by her photographer)

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creepy cherub detail on St. Paul’s Cathedral

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with Lisa Highton, at the Two Roads office

I take a lot of things for granted that I know I shouldn’t. For example, when I arrived in London on Friday morning, I went directly to the offices of my London publisher, where I was welcomed with open arms by Lisa Highton and her crew, and Nath and I were fed sandwiches and fruit followed by a sumptuous cake. I’m not saying I took that welcome for granted, exactly, more that I just find myself rolling with these things as they come. I never quite expected to be where I am, but it is where I am, and so I try my best to be here without questioning it or worrying over the transience of the experience. That’s what travelling is like, too. You roll with what comes at you. You have to, really. And so, jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, I welcomed the welcome at Two Roads, as you can see from the photo above. And later that same day, with a short nap to bolster me, I welcomed the welcome of dinner out with my fabulous Canadian publisher, Anansi, who were in town for the London Book Fair.

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Friday evening, street in Charlton, looking rather Dickensian here

I welcomed the welcome of my friends, too, who hosted me so generously in their home, and who accompanied me around London, and got me oriented. I wouldn’t have gone to London at all if they hadn’t been there — I couldn’t have imagined taking the leap on my own. And that’s what it comes down to, really, the leap of the imagination, which is the first step to any adventure.

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Westminster Abbey

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