Category: Books

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.

Reading Tonight

I couldn’t get the poster to upload, but wanted to let you know that I’m reading tonight in downtown Kitchener at The Museum (formerly known as the Children’s Museum). Doors open at 7pm, but the readings don’t start till 7:30. It’s a free event. I don’t know whether or not there will be drinks available. Should have asked.

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Back from my early morning swim, feeling buoyant. Seems to be the feeling I get after my early morning swims. Could also be due to a piece of good news received in the mail yesterday. I opened the non-descript envelope hurriedly, on my way into the house to turn down the crockpot, with CJ waiting in the truck outside in the driveway (yes, I’m that kind of mother; but the truck wasn’t running). I was running late for an appointment, and didn’t want the lentils in the crockpot to scorch. Then I saw the envelope. It was from the Ontario Arts Council, and I knew what that might mean–grant application denied. Or, the opposite. Ripped it open, read the first line, saw the cheque, and began bouncing and screaming. Remembered to turn down the crockpot. Raced outside to tell CJ. Wondered whether I had indeed remembered to turn off the crockpot. Raced back inside to check. Yes, crockpot turned down. Raced back to truck. CJ mildly interested. Should I really be driving under the circumstances? I asked. It was a brief spell of intense joy, and I’ve learned to embrace those spells full-on when they come, because they don’t last, they can’t, and the intensity quickly dissipates. That’s okay. But the huge smile and feeling of goodwill toward all humankind–that was nice. I will try to keep the feeling of goodwill going.

Days of Play

Big boy reading to little boy. The lovely thing about this was that it happened after supper, when CJ was begging for entertainment, and Albus right away offered to read him a book: Green Eggs and Ham. Albus has become such a reader over the past year or so, devouring chapter books, but reading out loud is yet another step.

I gave the kids a mental health day awhile back, and this is one of the activities we did: colouring, water-colouring, and drawing on a large single sheet of paper. The end result was not overwhelmingly amazing (I did not hang it on the dining-room wall, as the kids requested), but the process was a lot of fun. Reminiscent of the kind of hands-on directed-activity parenting I used to do on a regular basis, that is now fairly rare. It’s nice that it’s rare, because it means the kids play independently and creatively all on their own, but occasionally it’s also nice to get to be a part of that play, too. But only occasionally).

Snow day/P.D. day play.

Fooey was out for an hour, along with several other kids (I was babysitting that day). They ended with a game that involved jumping off the porch and swinging on the chain that in summertime holds up one of the hammocks. I didn’t find out about that til later. Hands-off parenting/babysitting has its downside. Though everyone came in unharmed, glowing, and happy, and devoured a snack of hot chocolate, marshmallows, and apricot cake. Is there a lesson in this?

Tuesday and Thursday mornings. As soon as the big kids head out the door, the little kids throw themselves into play. (What will we do next year when Fooey goes to school all-day, every-day?). This morning. Started with puzzles. Moved on to cooking and baking.

Followed by eating, of course. And nope I’m not involved in this game. I’m sitting at the computer nearby, typing this post. (They’ve moved on to naptime right now. Sounds good to me …).

Writing Day: Plain Kate

I am starting off the new year with a writing push: this week and next. Yesterday was one of those terrific and productive writing days, which means it was also overwhelming and I got lost and could scarcely drag myself out to fetch a glass of water. I’m not sure there’s another way to do it, however, not if I want to get deep into the really good stuff, the access to the underground.

When I finished writing, around eleven o’clock, I was a restless ball of nervous energy. So I picked up a book. I gave it to AppleApple for her birthday (age 8), signed by the author, who is local: Plain Kate, by Erin Bow. Erin warned me that the book, written for young adults, is too dark for younger children, and should be read only by more mature adolescents and teens, but AppleApple is an avid and wide reader, and she wasn’t frightened by the Harry Potter series, which seem pretty dark to me. So, AppleApple started Plain Kate, and got nearly the end, absolutely devouring it; and then suddenly stopped, shut up the book, and could not go on. It was too scary, she said. Since she’d obviously been taken by it, I wanted to know why it was so scary. She couldn’t articulate it. When I picked up the book, I understood why.

Plain Kate is a gorgeously written evocation of a dark imaginary world that nevertheless feels not invented but real: the setting is vaguely Eastern European-feeling, and the time is time past, when superstition flourishes, and magic is real and feared. Kate, the protagonist, is an utterly unprotected and orphaned child with a gift for carving, an outcast accused of witchcraft who must flee the only town she’s ever known. I won’t give away more. (I should also add that, inspired by Kate, AppleApple requested “carving tools” for Christmas, which we tracked down, along with protective leather gloves, so she now has her own carving kit; one evening, while she was reading Plain Kate, we found her sitting outside, in her coat, in the cold, on the back porch, whittling a stick; let me tell you, I love this child!).

So, a dark world; and having now read it, I do understand why AppleApple was too scared to go on (my plan is to read her, out loud, the last little section, because, not to give too much away, the book ends with cathartic brilliance). (And to quibble with the young adult designation, please know, adults, that this could just as easily be a book for you).

I was most intrigued by the author’s conception of magic: a witch possesses true power, but has to give of him or herself in order to receive or use the magic. In the book, the giving is quite literal: there is blood, and a lot of it. And as I read obsessively to the end (staying up till all hours), I thought about the magic that I attempt to access, when writing; I know it’s there, and I know I can get to it, but not without sacrifice.

In order to open my mind to the words, I have to open all of my emotional self: it feels, when I’m going through the process, that I am raw, that by opening my mind, I am exposing myself to the darkness and danger depicted in Plain Kate’s world. Margaret Atwood writes often, especially in her poems, about going underground, going down, and that’s what it feels like to me, too; that the underworld of the Greeks is more real than not. That the passage between here and there is always waiting. I don’t mean that I write about horrible and sad things, or that underground and underworld are synonymous with a kind of hell or darkness, only that so much of human experience sleeps under the surface, and we all know it’s there. Is it something to be feared? Maybe, sometimes. Anything powerful can overwhelm, for good or for ill. Power/magic/the divine isn’t to be sought out lightly. But anytime you’ve been moved by a ritual or a work of art, you’ve been touched by something under the surface, a powerful human connection held in common. Someone has gone under to bring back a piece of light for you.

That’s what Erin Bow has done in Plain Kate.

As I work today, I recognize what it takes to do this work: that in order to receive, I have to give of myself. I’m making it sound perhaps more exalted than it plays out in reality: sitting still and thinking and searching around for the words and placing them and then going back and replacing them, many times over, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat. The toll it takes is on my body (restless, cramped, and still), and my relationships (my children miss me: “You’re working again?”; my husband misses me; I’m largely shut off from the outside world); and on my mind. I staggered down last night for a glass of water, finally, and I thought, good grief, I could not live like this. Imagine having all the time in the world to write: I’m imagining a nightmare. But I’m not a magician of brilliant creative powers, I have a more modest gift: I aspire to be a healer. I hope I remember this when writing time is short, and I am complaining about the ordinary everyday: folding laundry, feeding children, exchanging hellos in the schoolyard, racing to meet the demands of routine. That is where life happens. Just because it happens up here, out there, on the surface, doesn’t mean it’s superficial. I couldn’t go under, from time to time, without all the spirit-feeding everyday to sustain me.

Now. To see what’s waiting for me today.

Women’s Writing: Discuss

Must must must link to this provocative and well-argued piece, by Kerry Clare, on women’s fiction, and how it continues to be viewed by critics as being of lesser value than men’s fiction, even now, long after Virginia Woolf wrote about the issue in A Room of One’s Own: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop–everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.” 
In her essay, Clare posits that the gestational approach to plot in a book like Lisa Moore’s February is indeed very much unlike the conclusion-driven fiction that we consider to be traditionally male; but that the layered and continual sock-folding nature of “feminine” fiction should not and cannot be dismissed simply because it approaches time and human transitions differently.
I guess my question is: do women really understand time and action differently than men do? Is this a feminine quality, or does it relate more to the fact that more women than men, even now, spend time folding socks, and completing repetitive daily tasks? Do our bodies call us to observe and reflect upon repetition and a less linear understanding of time, are women by nature gestational beings? Just asking. I don’t know.
Read the article. And then comment, because I really want to know what you think (… as I sit here, writing what seems to me to be a prototypically feminine book).

The Car

Pickle Me This has posted its picks for 2011: Canada Reads Independently, and this year I was asked to champion a book, not an easy thing to do as it turns out. How to choose? In the end, though I wanted to go with something newer or more obscure, I had to champion a writer who has been with me for many years (in my imagination, I mean), and who has deeply influenced my own writing–and whose work I return to perhaps even more often than L.M. Montgomery’s or Agatha Christie’s. (My taste is not highbrow). Interested in finding out more? Click here.

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In other news, I find myself obsessed with an accident that occurred in our neighbourhood, in which a twelve-year-old boy was struck by a vehicle while crossing the street (in the crosswalk). (He survived, but will have a long recovery). The boy was outside, on his own; not unlike I hope for my own children and other children of the neighbourhood to be able to be. And for all my primitive brain fears of losing a child to a stranger, my rational brain understands that the car is a much greater danger to them, outside, on their own.

My children have walked with me since they were very small, all over town; a fairly large proportion of our conversations, while walking, have related to how we are negotiating with traffic. Let’s just say I’ve had a lot of teachable moments while walking with my children. My conclusion is that our city is not a safe place to walk. Pedestrians can follow the rules of the road, but this will simply not guarantee their safety: they must use instinct and constant attention; a lot of ask to anyone, let alone of a child.

How many times have my children and I waited at a crosswalk, with the signal telling us that it is our right of way, while a driver, who wishes to turn right on a red light (her legal right, too), inches forward, head craning to look the other way: she will step on the gas and go if it’s all clear on her left and never look to see what’s before her: a child, a mom, a stroller, a cyclist. My kids have been taught to make eye contact with drivers before making the decision to cross the street. On their walks to school, they’ve waited for vehicles whose drivers are backing out of driveways without ever once checking behind for children walking on the sidewalk. An elderly woman waved to my daughter at a crosswalk, typically a sign that the car is waiting for the pedestrian to cross; fortunately, my daughter had only taken a step before the woman zoomed through the intersection. Apparently she was just saying Hello to the cute little child, as she hurried on her way. These are not isolated incidents; similar things happen every day. We might call them minor, but they are inches away from being major.

As pedestrians, of course we have to stay vigilant. But pedestrian vigilance is surely not the only or even the best answer to this problem, which seems to go much deeper, and speaks to the many sacrifices our culture has made on the altar of the car. Our cities are built not to move people, but to move cars.

The way we think about driving is mixed up, too. We consider driving to be a right; getting a driver’s licence is also a rite of passage. We forget that driving is actually a privilege and a responsibility.

To get inside a car is to enter a sealed bubble; it distances us from the world we’re driving through. How often am I hurrying to get somewhere, or late, or distracted by grumpy children behind me? Getting into the car does not make me a kinder, more aware, more empathetic person; it makes me quite the opposite. I become impatient. It’s the last place I want to be–in between, en route from somewhere to somewhere else, and not enjoying the journey. Inside the car is about the only place you’ll ever hear me swear (oh–though you might hear me swearing at cars when I am walking).

Yet I am very very appreciative of our vehicle. I use it primarily to ferry kids to activities that our family considers valuable: theatre school, music lessons, horseback riding. I’m not prepared, voluntarily, at this moment in time, to live entirely car-free. But I do want to try to live as car-free as possible. I want to remind myself, always, of the heavy responsibility that I bear as a driver: for lives both inside and outside of my vehicle. And I want to be able to walk safely in my city.

What are some next steps, as I consider how to bring about real changes? At the very least, a letter to the editor. But I also need to clarify my thoughts on the subject. Should I consider researching and writing about the car, about walkable cities, about how to get from where we are now to where we could be? How does change happen, especially change that feels enormous and structural? Any ideas?

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