Category: Book Review

A few small good things

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1. Giving away food. On Tuesday afternoon I cooked a giant pot of pasta sauce using my home-canned tomatoes. We ate some for supper and I froze three containers. And then along came Friday, a beast of a day; the worst of it was not what was happening, but how I felt I was handling what was happening. Performing poorly all around; know the feeling? By the time 3pm arrived, I was feeling downright down. And then an opportunity presented itself: to provide not one, but TWO meals to families in need of a little extra help. And I had these containers of frozen pasta sauce, plus lots of extra pasta on hand. It was the best part of my day, I’ll tell you honestly. Packing up food and giving it away. A reminder that being asked to help is a real gift, not to be taken for granted.

2. One good run. I ran super-fast on Friday night. My leg didn’t trouble me, and I covered ground quickly: 6km in under half an hour, at a pace of better than 5 minutes/km. Speedy! As speedy as I’ve ever run. In truth, it was probably too much, too soon, because yesterday afternoon’s follow-up run was slow and pained; good news tempered by bad. But at least I know speed is still there, waiting for me; and I feel certain that if I can retrain my muscles, I will be able to run faster than before. Plus just being outside, no matter how chilly, is a small good thing in itself.

3. Downtime. Friday night, Kevin and I finally spent some time together, just the two of us. And thankfully we both wanted the same thing: to rest our weary minds. So he made us each a martini with big juicy olives, and we vegged on the couch and watched Downton Abbey. An ahhhhh, thank you, Life, moment.

4. A nice review in the Montreal Gazette this weekend. A couple of really lovely things about this review. a) The reviewer remembers Hair Hat, which he read eight years ago; it stayed with him. b) He’s rooting for Juliet: “It will be interesting to see how this book, at least as mature and powerful as several recent major award winners, performs in the marketplace.” He’s rooting, but he knows the reality. Juliet is one in a crowd. Will she break out and be found? He thinks she has a chance, if people pick her up and read her. (Is it weird that I’ve started referring to the book as if it were a person? Hm. I’m just going to file that observation away rather than subject it to analysis.)

Window on writing

I’ve been reading Charles Foran’s biography of Mordecai Richler. It’s a fat book and I’m not even halfway through, but already lines are jumping off the page. I’m deeply intrigued by the portrait of the formative writer–the kid, no more than twenty, who set off to Europe cadging money from any willing family member or friend, working as if possessed, carousing, ambitious. That’s what strikes me most about his formative years, when he was writing frantically and receiving nothing but rejection letters–the sheer volume of his ambition. Of course, in part what he displays is youth. And he had talent even if it was awfully raw at that point in his life. He had luck too. Just before he left Europe to return to Montreal, broke, just twenty-one, he found an agent who admired his potential, and helped him see his way into this life he was demanding for himself.

Charles Foran writes about what might have happened, had Richler not been found and professionally validated; he had a lead on a job at the CBC and in fact worked there briefly writing news copy; but not for long. “By 1952, CBC radio and the new television network were already the destination of choice for those with talent and culture who dared not risk seeing if they could really make a go of it as artists…” [my emphasis]

Guess what Mordecai Richler dared to do?

What elements make up the personality of someone willing, as Foran writes, “to hustle, do what was required. … Henceforth, he would be freelance, his own master and servant. Without security. Without nets.” Brash? Egocentric? Bold? Calculating? Intensely focused? In many ways, it’s not the nicest personality, is it? It can’t really be. You can’t worry about pleasing others, or meeting conventional expectations. It helps not to be apologetic in your approach. Why apologize for being who you are?

(Side question: Does this apply mainly to male artists? Personally, I don’t think so, though traditionally it’s been less acceptable for women to be unapologetic in their ambitions. Now where the heck does motherhood fit into the bold/brash/intensely focused rubric?).

One more thing. Around this same time, Richler wrote to his editor Diana Athill: “Often I think I don’t like or dislike writing, it’s just something I’ve got to do.”

I read those words and felt like something in me had been struck. Yes.


This week has been a flurry. There’s a lot of hustling going on. At various moments during any given day it feels like I’m keeping up; not keeping up; almost keeping up; hanging on by sheer will; taking a tumble; staying with it; losing track; back in the game; organized; overwhelmed. But mostly, okay.

I’m okay because I keep landing on this thought that completely amazes me: I’m doing what I want to do. No, you know, it’s even more amazing than that: I’m doing what I’ve got to do.

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

I’ve been wanting to blog about this book since finishing it, and should have written my thoughts down immediately, as I’m now into a completely different book called Eaarth, by Bill McKibbon (also worth blogging about in a welcome-to-the-present-and-happening-nightmare-of-climate-change way).

Unlike Eaarth, Annabel is fiction, and an entirely different book, though the situation it describes could easily represent another kind of nightmare. That it doesn’t tells a great deal about the author’s sensibility. Imagine giving birth to a baby with ambiguous genitalia: the child is both a boy and a girl. There are a variety of directions in which a writer could take this idea. Kathleen Winter doesn’t go anywhere expected, yet the story she tells has the familiarity of truth about it.

Set in a tiny town in Labrador, in a landscape that is brutal and stark and wild, Winter writes about this child as if he were as natural and normal as any other. He is loved, in all the complicated and heart-breakingly ordinary ways, by his parents. But he is also different. His difference depends on who is looking at him, and on what he means to the other person — what he represents. To his mother, he is partly the daughter she did not let live (in the sense that her child’s femaleness was denied from birth onward). To his father, he is a child that must be trained the right way, to become a man, no matter the pain and consequences; his father sees that choosing a stable identity will protect the child from harm. To the neighbour who attended his birth, and knows his body’s secret, the boy is just as much a girl, and she quietly nurtures the girl-side of the child.

His body is a secret to everyone but these three, including to the child himself, until he is a teenager, and he is raised as a boy; but Winter delicately draws him so that we understand that he is both. He is not one or the other. He is himself.

The book made me reflect not only on gender, and how gendered our world is — the way there are clothes and colours and toys and emotions and expectations for boys and different clothes and colours and toys and emotions and expectations for girls — but it also made me reflect on individuality, and the preciousness and potential of each and every life.

Roles are rigid. Individuals are not. What potential any of us have if we are loved. How the self longs to flower in the light of love.

Up Up Up

Today marks the launch of a debut collection of stories: Up Up Up, by Julie Booker. It also marks the first time I’ve “blurbed” for a book. You can go to bookstores (in Canada), pick up this brightly titled book, and turn it over to the back cover where you will find these words:

“Up Up Up is perfectly titled: a debut collection that positively bubbles with life, humour, and surprise. In these swift and sparkling stories — confections of unexpected density –Booker’s voice never fails to illuminate the bright side of the dark side. Booker’s radiant charm is in her seeming artlesness: dialogue that leaps from page to ear, flawed characters who try and try again, and — listen, you can almost hear it — the joyful hum of boundless curiosity.”

And then you’ll see my name. Woot! (Why is woot a word? I don’t know, but I like it).

I had not heard of Julie Booker–this is her first book–before reading these stories, and it was a delight to put my stamp of approval on them. So go get the book and get reading! Twenty short stories make for excellent just-before-bed fare.

Book Review by Albus

Max Finder Mystery: Collected Casebook, volume 5, by Craig Battle and Ramon Perez, published by Owlkids.

It’s a bunch of different comics, and they’re mysteries. Some of the clues are hidden inside pictures–they’re not always words. I like how the artist draws the characters. I found out about Max Finder in Owl magazine. I like mysteries because they’re fun to try and figure out who did it. I like comics because it tells a story with pictures.

I also liked how you could find clues on the way while you were reading it, as if you were the detective. Then you could find out if you were right or wrong at the very end of the mystery.

I think it’s made for 7-13 year olds. It’s made for multi-gender (boys and girls). This book is cool.

by Albus, age 9

Hair Hat Reviews

Pickle Me This has posted links on her site to several more Hair Hat reviews–all as part of Canada Reads: Independently.
The first is a reprint: Buried in Print originally reviewed Hair Hat when it came out a few years ago. This is easily one of my favourite reviews of the book, ever, and it’s lovely of her to reprint it now.
The second is a passionate review is by a literary blogger (at who absolutely despises the hair hat man–or, more precisely, the conceit of the hair hat man. What I find most fascinating about his review is that he actually seems to like the stories themselves. I remember that when Hair Hat was first published, it received a few reviews in this vein, which I found difficult and personally painful to take, though the positive reviews were more numerous, and besides, I’d known in advance what to expect: there’s no way to please everyone, and pleasing everyone isn’t the goal of book-writing. It was a bit of trend: a handful of reviewers did not understand why the hair hat man was a necessary component of the stories, and saw him as a gimmick of some sort. It’s a fair opinion. But he was never a gimmick to me. The stories revolved around him, arrived out of his existence, and seemed to me entirely inseparable from him. He was a puzzle, a curiosity, and I came to accept his presence in my imagination as a gift, even if sometimes the gift felt like a bit of a curse, too–why did he have to wear his hair in such a ridiculous style? Was I supposed to take him seriously? I couldn’t seem to get at him directly, so I kept angling at him through the eyes of these other characters. The stories felt necessary. I couldn’t help writing them how they were written. I suppose that to be one of the secrets about writing: not everything is in the author’s control. I could have removed him afterward, I suppose, but I can’t imagine doing it.
It’s been a number of years since I wrote these stories, and I’m pleased to report that I can read that review with distance and curiosity. I urge you to read it, too. It’s fascinating.
And I really like what Kerry Clare, of Pickle Me This, had to say about the hair hat man: “I love that he exists in your book as someone who makes people uncomfortable, and he does the same thing to your readers.”
That aspect of his existence had never occurred to me before: that something of his power is his persistence and ridiculousness and the way he makes different people feel differently. So it’s okay to despise him. You can even tell me and I won’t hit you. Or cry.
Great success here, this afternoon: I’ve managed to cook an extremely mediocre feast of Indian food, which is not the fault of the Indian food, but of my distracted cooking … blogging while cooking while supervising hungry children is a recipe for slightly burnt nan bread with slightly undercooked yellow split peas in rice. (There’s also dahl, and spinach with mustard seeds, and turnips with coriander). And the turnips are way too spicy for the kids to eat, though I suspect Kevin and I will love them.

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