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Pickle Me This

December 1, 2013

Wood by Jennica Harper

woodJennica Harper is the poet whose books I stay up reading late into the night. She has uncanny ability to zero in on my fascinations, articulate questions I’ve vaguely wondered about, to use the very things located in the world around me (songs, cultural lore, television characters, celebrity references) and spin their own mythology. In a recent conversation, she asked, “Is there such thing as a “gateway poet”? That’s what I’d like to be.” And she has certainly succeeded at this, most recently with her latest collection, the beautiful, quietly powerful Wood.

Wood is meticulously packaged, the trunk-ring design from the cover repeated on the endpapers.The package is important, first because it’s beautiful, but also because Wood is a project of parts rather than strictly a whole and how these parts fit together is a huge part of the book’s appeal.

The first section is “Realboys: Poems for, and from, Pinocchio”. Like much of Wood, this is a story about progeny and disconnect. Pinocchio who is not quite a son, whose burgeoning sexuality extends the “wood” metaphor further (ha ha), who takes on Gepetto’s disappointment that he won’t grow to be a man–Gepetto, the man who made him! Who longs for the accoutrements of manhood without really understanding what they are. The only thing that isn’t rigid here is language: “I make things hard.”

“Liner Notes” is section 2, a long-poem from the perspective of a young woman 10 months into her first serious romance, thinking over the matters of her life as she cares for a disabled child and listens to “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells. “Tommy James and the Shondells went on vacation in 1969/ and never got back together…” The connections between the band, the song, the girl and the child in her care. She is on the cusp of adulthood, and the child stands for an unspoken possibility for the rest of her life, a possible narrative thread. She is playing house, experimenting with roles, hypnotized by the melody “over and over”, by her own power, by the possibilities still before her. The child is a window onto a way of life that nobody ever imagines, evidence that life takes on its own trajectory. And what does the child know about being a realgirl, about being being human? What does she know about being beyond human?

“There are various interpretations of the meaning of “Crimson and Clover”/…Many continue to believe it’s simply about being high, floating, synesthesia/letting go.”

“Papa Hotel” is imaginings on the father figure as iconic Hollywood movie stars, continuing the father-child (dis)connection theme that began with Pinocchio. Like the previous section, it’s an exercise in the hypothetical (wood/would!). Or the poet is imagining a context for inexplicable behaviour instead? “My Father, As Jack Nicholson”: “A man who knows a pretty girl when he sees one, and he’s always seeing/ one. He reads waitresses’ tags, calls them their names…”

Next is “The Box” (wooden?), poems about Harry Houdini and his wife, about their marriage–“They had no children”. The poet imagines herself into the experience of Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner: “Now I’m the wife of the Handcuff King.” Poems about the tricks of their life together, and about their “Dream Children”. And then in “Wife”: Her imagined children are your imagined children. For all you know/ she was content, childless, her small womb unstretched, a balloon/never blown. Her belly skin taut ’til the end. You want her to want/ those children. Then she’d be missing something, like you…”

“Would” comes next, poems from the point of view of “you” in the preceding section, with a few variations. Once again, we’re delving into the hypothetical, including a poem about Lizzie Borden’s parents supposing that they, like the Houdinis, had had no children. The last line of a poem about the impossibility of real-estate is “Once more, knock wood for the happy ending.” A poem about miscarriage, another about the prospect of childlessness (and with these, we see a connection between this longing and Pinocchio’s), and then “Ring in the Grain” (see cover image, of course) about birth from the point of view of a witness, a record of the event addressed to the child front one cognizant enough to articulate the profoundness of the moment, note the details of the blur.

And then finally, “Roots: The Sally Draper Poems,” which you may have already read because they were published online last winter and then went viral and were quoted on Slate, which is pretty amazing. The poems are clever in their conceit, but their power goes beyond cleverness or pop-culture connections. This is Sally Draper specifically, buying a present for her specific father, for example. I loved the line in “Sally Draper: Upwardly Mobile”: At home, my mother had it made and brought to her by the help. Something/ I think about when I pour.” “Sally Draper Contemplates the Interstellar Mission” reaches back to Harper’s first book, The Octopus and Other Poems, while this whole sequence engages the same intimate knowledge of the teenage mind as her second book, What It Feels Like For a Girl. More hypothetical exercises, disconnected dads, an abortion, red lipstick. Last night of the book: “Would that be so bad?”

Wood appears to have emerged from several different projects whose connections were secondary, and yet how these connections function–how these poems speak to one another, echo one another, underline and overwrite–is the book’s most compelling quality. It’s a kind of puzzle to discern how these pieces fit together, and each reread will unearth a new layer of understanding (or perhaps another ring in the grain?). Which is good reason then to stay up reading late into the night.

April 22, 2010

"Poetry is mad scientism": A Poetry Primer by Jennica Harper

Jennica Harper’s books are What It Feels Like For A Girl and The Octopus and Other Poems. She works as a screenwriter and story editor in the Canadian film industry, and is also an occasional stand-up comic. Jennica holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and a BA in English from the University of Toronto. She lives in Vancouver and she’s my all-time favourite poet.

Dear Kerry,

When you asked me to contribute to your Poetry Month celebrations by writing a poetry primer – defined however I liked – I thought, no problem. But here I am. The month ticks away. And all I can think of is Robin Williams tearing those graph-covered pages out of a textbook to prove that you don’t Analyze poetry, you Feel it. And yet, I don’t quite believe that, either. Sometimes Analyzing is exactly the path to Feeling a poem more deeply.

I’ve come to realize that, at this moment in time, I have no idea how to prime anyone on either the reading or the writing of poetry. Instead, I’d like to humbly offer you some thoughts on what I love about the form.


How I Think About Poetry, A Top Ten

1. Poetry is stand-up comedy. When comedy really works, and you laugh, and you’re elated, it’s because the comic has said something undeniably true, impossibly familiar –plus nailed the timing of the silences, and used the exact right words, in the exact right order.

2. Poetry is jamming in a garage. Also known as riffing, noodling, and disappointing one’s parents.

3. Poetry is revisionist history. It hypothesizes, it offends. It sets the records straight.

4. Poetry is clown school. It’s learning to take chances, to pratfall, to make it look effortless. Sometimes it’s putting on a false face so you can see others clearly.

5. Poetry is pioneering.* It’s a fear of the unknown and a determination – a need – to push forward anyway. Because who knows what’s over the next hill? Maybe land you can put a stake in. *Dowdy styles no longer a requirement in poetry.

6. Poetry is Helen Keller saying “water”.

7. Poetry is hot yoga. It’s meditative, it flexes and relaxes your mind, it keeps your midi-chlorians flowing.

8. Poetry is a surprise party. When I read something I connect with, I can’t help feeling “Wow! You all came here for me?”

9. Poetry is dinner at the Magic Castle. Not sure I can make the metaphor work, I just really want to go to the Magic Castle! Have you heard about this place?

10. Poetry is mad scientism. Unrelated items fused together. Mutations. Or the pieces of dead things sewn together and come back to life.


I would love to hear your Top Ten, or the Top Tens of others in the comments below… together we might be able to assemble the least useful (but most fun) poetry primer ever.

Yours in faithful silliness,


October 19, 2009

Author Interviews@ Pickle Me This: Jennica Harper

I first met Jennica Harper in the early 1990s, when I was about the same age as her protagonist in What It Feels Like for a Girl. Back then, she was my older cousin’s girlfriend who wrote(!), and though I could never think of anything clever enough to say to her, I admired her from across the room. When a couple of years ago, however, I read her book The Octopus and Other Poems, I was so taken with it that I had to convey my admiration directly. I sent an email and Jennica responded with what I’ve come to understand is characteristic graciousness and generosity, and since then we’ve bonded over Crowded House (as you do).

Jennica will be featured in two readings next week in Toronto for the International Festival of Authors. Her newest book is What It Feels Like For a Girl: “a series of poems following the intense friendship between two teenagers as they explore pop icons, pornography, and the big, strange world of sex.” She was kind enough to answer my questions from her home in Vancover.

I: What It Feels Like For a Girl is not your average book of poetry. A book-length ode to Madonna, friendship, dancing and music, it explores adolescent obsession with pornography, images of female sexuality, of desire, of betrayal. Where did this work begin? How did it evolve into its finished product?

JH: The genesis for this story was a complicated, all-consuming friendship I had when I was 13 – my first love, in a way. I’d been haunted by this friendship, this girl, this time in my life for quite a while, but never thought I’d write about it. It wasn’t until I got older and realized how ubiquitous this kind of friendship is for teenage girls that I felt like I wanted to unpack mine a bit more.

Then what I needed was some courage. I wasn’t afraid of the book being too racy – I was afraid of the earnestness I knew would be necessary to tell the story. Somehow earnestness makes me feel more vulnerable than talking frankly about sex! I convinced myself the first pages I wrote were just play; that I could throw it all out without ever showing it to anyone. That gave me the freedom I needed to explore the story however I wanted, and I found that the looseness of my drafting (jumping from tangent to tangent, allowing word play to have its way with me) helped me discover some of the motifs that became central to the story. This idea of the dancer being the truth-teller to an audience who might not want to see the truth… I didn’t plan for that thread, but it became crucial to the telling of the tale.

Is this a good place to mention the story’s heavily fictionalized? It is? Oh good.

I: Until reading What It Feels Like For a Girl, I’d never considered how much early adolescent sexuality (or at least the fixation with it) is a bookish pursuit– you mention “the real English class” with Lolita, The Happy Hooker, and even “a few pages from Danielle Steele,/ copied, folded and ready”; the girls pore over magazines (though I note, not for the articles); Madonna’s lyrics from the Bible; you reference poetry and “dead poet fantasies”; even labia are “open books”. What connections do you draw between books and sex?

JH: Books are super sexy. It’s not just me, right?

I was definitely a young reader who sought out sexy scenes in books. It was a way to learn, while anticipating what I’d one day get to do for real. I wanted to be part of it, think about it, imagine it, but didn’t really want the scary part: the bodies, the sweat, the awful sounds. I think reading about sex allowed for the perfect balance between fantasizing and maintaining some sense of mystery about the whole shebang.

I: There is much talk these days about overt sexuality in popular culture and the effect of this on young people. And yet, your book (and my own memory) makes clear that young people have always been obsessed with sex. Do you think things are different today than they were twenty years ago? Is your book relevant to modern teenage experience?

JH: I do think young people have always been obsessed with sex. I know there’s a lot of talk about how teenagers are going further faster these days. I’m sure that’s true, to a degree. But I was a 13 year old who just assumed I was the only one who didn’t really even want it yet; I thought everybody was way ahead of me, in action if not in thought. Apparently it’s still true that teenagers talk a big game and aren’t necessarily fucking willy-nilly.

What I really wanted to explore in the book is that mad desire – the desperately wanting, but also the relishing of the not-getting. Wallowing in that. It’s its own kind of satisfaction. I was reading Anne Carson when I was writing the first draft, and was affected by her thoughts about desire. Desire dies the minute you get what you want. You’ve got to enjoy the wanting. (Sincere apologies to Ms. Carson for my oversimplification…)

I do hope that delicious, painful, amazing feeling hasn’t been lost. I don’t think it has. Isn’t that largely what the Twilight madness is about? The sweet can’t-haveness?

I: “But what makes girls and boys/ see sex and want to beat it down?/ Standing in the gym you realize/ poetry has taught you nothing.” Was the medium the problem, or the poems themselves? Or the reader? Is this poetry than can teach something new?

JH: Should I ever have a book marketed to book clubs, may I hire you to write the suggested discussion questions? (I: Thank you.)

I think the problem was a little about the poems, a little about the reader. Poetry had not prepared the speaker for the particular complex problem she was facing. But maybe she just hadn’t read the right poems yet.

I: Why is/was Madonna important?

JH: I think I partly wrote the book as a means of trying to get at that very question. What interests me most about Madonna is that I’m still not sure how I feel about her. But she has certainly made me consider my own feelings about sex in the public sphere.

I: “When you are thirteen/ the world is a small room/…But it’s also a complicated room/…It’s a strange time to be a girl…”. What was your writing like when you were thirteen? What were you reading then?

JH: My poetry was terrible, but I wrote really kick-ass book reports. (I’ve actually read some recently – they hold up!) With poetry, I was trying to put on a poet’s voice (and choose poem-appropriate topics) because I thought that’s what you were supposed to do. But when I read a book I liked (an example would be And I Don’t Want To Live This Life, by Nancy Spungen’s mother) and had to write critically about it, I was honestly and passionately engaged. It took years for me to discover how to take that engagement with someone else’s work and apply it to my own subject

I: You are a writer of great versatility– you’re a poet, a screenwriter, and you’ve also written a comic book. (Have I missed anything?) Is there anything in particular that links these things that you do? What about these modes of writing appeals to your sensibility?

JH: That covers it pretty well!

I do think there are some major links between these forms. First – they’re image-based. (Not all poetry, of course, but mine, to a large degree.) I think these forms all choose images, or scenes, to represent something much bigger than just that one moment. Images as tips-of-the-iceberg. Moments that allow the reader or viewer to fill in all sorts of gaps. Hopefully what the reader/viewer brings to those gaps is a mix of what you were thinking and what they’re bringing to the work.

They also all rely, to a degree, on economy. In screenwriting, you don’t get away with much chaff. Every moment must be part of the telling of the story, or it’ll get cut from the script before its shot – or it’ll get shot and then cut, and you’ve just wasted thirty thousand dollars. Or it doesn’t get cut even then, and audiences wonder what the hell the point of THAT scene was.

In poetry, I do find there is a revision stage in which you look at every word and wonder if it’s necessary. And if it’s necessary, is the word doing double or triple duty, really earning its place?

I: Your first and second books are very different. What is their relationship? What do they have in common?

JH: I find it difficult to make a connection too. As you have pointed out before, I think the key motif in The Octopus and Other Poems is wonder. That does apply here, too: looking at the things we as human beings explore, and why, and what that exploration costs us.

I: What do you require in your life in order to write well?

JH: I have very different needs on different days – sometimes it’s a full stomach, a clean house, and quiet. Other days the mess can pile up around me, there’s construction outside, and I’ll work hungry for six hours straight and it’s perfect. But I know I’m lucky to have enough control of my life (a husband I love, a home we love, enough money for all the essentials) to have the luxury of different needs on different days.

I: What was it like having your poem on a bus?

JH: It was very cool in theory, and very uncool in the sense that I never once saw it! In a year of my poem decorating Vancouver buses and SkyTrains while I took transit every day, I didn’t cross paths with it – though friends took photos when they saw it and sent them to me. That was nice. I also have one of the placards here in my office. That’s also nice.

I’ve just learned an excerpt from What It Feels Like for a Girl will be part of Poetry in Transit in early 2010, after the Olympics have come and gone. Wish me luck hunting it down!

I: What five poems do you think everybody should read?

JH: I never know how to do stuff like this. So without thinking about it overmuch: 1. “Supernatural Love” by Gjertrud Schnackenberg 2. “All the Desanctified Places” by Robert Bringhurst 3. “For Peter, My Cousin” by Barbara Nickel 4. “Sudden” by Michael Redhill 5. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Michael Ondaatje (I’m calling it one long poem, just because I can.)

I: Who are your favourite writers?

JH: My favourite writers are the ones I get to have nachos or burgers with. Or who come over to play Rock Band.

I: What are you reading right now?

JH: I’m reading Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean. It’s phenomenal – very accessible and yet poetic. Funnily enough, there’s a connection between that book and our conversation here. One of the main threads for Aristotle and young Alexander is the idea of balance; the “truth” that lies between two extremes, or caricatures. One of the sparks for me in writing What It Feels Like for a Girl came years ago in a lecture about pornography. There were students enraged at the medium’s exploitation of women, and there were students who felt people (including women) should do whatever they wanted with their bodies. I found myself asking the question: Is it possible – even advisable – to feel both ways about the subject? About any subject? I’m really taken with this emotional duality. Though it can be a pain when having a spirited debate… it must be very frustrating for my friends to watch me passionately not take a side!

(Author Photo by Jeff Morris)

April 27, 2008

The Octopus by Jennica Harper

I used to have this sticker with a picture of a boy and a bear standing on the top of Planet Earth, set against a black starry sky and the bear was pointing up. The words coming out of his mouth said, “Look up there.” The image to me is the definition of “wonder”, and it kept occurring to me as I reread Jennica Harper’s book The Octopus yet again.

Wondrous things dominate this collection: prairie skies, cinema, rocket ships, spacemen, music, snowstorm, beaches, breasts, mothers, and extraterrestrial life. Some of these things ordinary but made new through widened eyes. From “Cinema Paradiso”: “Only a true believer/ sits on the edge of her seat at the movies/ like they do in the movies./ I am such a believer.”

In the long poem “The Octopus”, this wonder is questioned, as two former lovers have the same conversations they’ve always had. “Something we could not let go:/ all the time spent, the conversations/ run and rerun, we didn’t think we would/ have the strength to have them/ with another person.” The other love who sees such wonder as self-indulgent, who “can’t condone the reckless hope/ of finding some other life out there.” He points elsewhere instead: “If Sagan and his crew really wanted an alien,/ you say, they would look to the octopus…” He is “afraid all this probing/ will have been a waste.”

But to our narrator, the wonder has been enough, and so too the wondering: “the girl on the beach… but is it a waste that I got to dream her?” Pointing up, and wondering what is out there in the universe, asking where did we come from and where are we going. Questions that apply just as much to outer space as to our own histories; the secret to our origins might lie in the stars, but we seek the same answers in our mothers, our families, in the world all around us. In this context everything is worth examining; indeed a praying mantis is a “tiny robot”, we are made up of our elements. And then we can dare to “admit we’re not the only subject/ and can sometimes be the searcher, the verb”.

Harper writes, “All of this talk is just talk./ The truth is, we will never know/ our own future, not even/our own past”. The talk, however, and all the wondering, and the poetry– all this stand as evidence, as an arsenal against empty claims of nothingness. Making it certain: “We Are Here.”

September 22, 2014

Mess: The Hospital Anthology


I was born in a hospital, and then spent about 30 years not being in the hospital, save for visits to the ER for various frivolous things. And then I started having babies, and a benign growth on my thyroid, and my friends had babies and my dad was treated for cancer, and it seems that hospitals are no longer unchartered territory in my personal geography. Last week, I visited specialists at no less than two of them. And this familiarity was part of the reason I’ve been looking forward to reading Mess: The Hospital Anthology, edited by Julie Devaney (author of the acclaimed My Leaky Body) and David Molenhuis.

But my interest is for the book’s less familiar elements too. I wanted to read about death. And not because I wanted to exactly, but because I am so uncomfortable with how unfamiliar I am with experiences of death and dying, unsurprisingly because, as one writer notes in the book, there is a tendency for doctors and patients alike to dance figure-eights around these ideas rather than saying what they mean. Though it’s not just death—a reluctance to talk about any of the messy bits of bodies and healthcare means that death is actually the most concrete idea we come to associate with hospitals, resulting in much fear and discomfort associated with these places.

The third reason I was interested in this book were the literary reputations of its contributors: poems by Jacob Scheier, Priscila Uppal, Jennica Harper; pieces by Tabatha Southey, Stacey May Fowles, S. Bear Bergman, Diane Flacks, Micah Toub, Sarah Leavitt, Shannon Webb-Campbell and others. One comes to anthologies with an agenda, but the pieces stay with the reader for their writing, and they do here, and not just in the pieces by names I recognized.

The anthology opens with Southey’s essay on her experiences giving birth to her first child on Christmas Eve, a birth whose processes go awry for a time, making its author most aware of the enormous range of human experience enacted all the time within a hospital’s confines, a range the entire book goes to illuminate: birth, death and everything in between. Each section of the book is prefaced by a short piece by Devaney, sections from an essay about a season in her life that was rife with experiences of birth and mortality, mostly the latter. Many of the pieces in the section about death reflect a tendency to leave thinking about it until the last possible moment, to focus on all possible alternatives except the ultimate one. They also show the various ways family members grieve, how these emotions rub up hard against those from medical professionals, the ways in which the dying and their loved ones are failed by the medical establishment at the end of life. How very hard it is to be prepared for death, no matter how many anthologies a reader might explore.

Other pieces reflect the tender humanity taking place in hospitals all the time, how mental health patients are particularly compromised, how hospital stories connect with wider societal issues, what it feels as a person to be reduced to no more than another body in the medical system, and how bodies are stranger and more mysterious than even doctors understand. I particularly appreciated Diane Flacks’ “Pray Tell (or How I Became an Atheist at Sick Kids Hospital)”, a powerful refutation to that cliche about gods only giving you what you can handle. Jane Eaton Hamilton on her experiences photographing deceased infants with their families is also a beautiful and striking piece. David Molenhuis’ essay about the death of his mother, the callousness of the medical professionals who failed her and the hole her loss has left in their family life should be required regular reading for doctors everywhere.

Mess is a little bit messy, which is not unfitting. The range of topics considered seemed a bit too wide, a few pieces not quite belonging, or only tangentially. I also would have welcomed a few more pieces from medical professionals themselves, though maybe asking these to be as well-written as the writers’ pieces is too large a request—if they were writers, they probably wouldn’t be doctors or nurses. But overall, the effect of the book is most powerful. Devaney has made her reputation as a patient advocate, illuminating the human side of life on the gurney, which is perhaps where life is at its most life-ist anyway. With Mess, Devaney and Molenhuis have shone a spotlight where many of us still fear to tread, doing patients an enormous service in illuminating their experiences with the potential of changing our healthcare system for the better, and also creating an emotional and most compelling read.

December 6, 2013

My Top 10 Books of 2013 has 22 books in it.

It’s been an amazing year for books. And this is the first time I’ve felt like this for a long time. This year, I’ve read books that broke my heart, books that changed my world, books that articulated everything I wonder about, books that changed my mind.  This was a year of highs and lows, a year in which I needed certain books more than ever, and these in particular are the books that spoke to me so clearly. It was such an amazing year for books, in fact, that my Top 10 Books of 2013 has 22 books in it. The abundance is the very point, and I have no desire to narrow it down.

americanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I love a book so textured that the answer to my criticisms are contained inside its very pages. I reached page 335 to find a tirade by Ifemelu’s boyfriend’s sister who is about to publish her first book, a memoir about growing up black in America. She explains, “My editor reads the manuscript and says, “I understand that race is important but we have to make sure the book transcends race…” And I’m thinking, But why do I have to transcend race? You know, like race is a brew best served mild, tempered with other liquids, otherwise white folk can’t swallow it.” Explaining an anecdote, she says, “So I put it in the book and my editor wants to change it because he says it’s not subtle. Like life is always fucking subtle.”

life-after-lifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson:

There is texture to a book like this, and the pleasure of seeing secondary characters from a wide variety of angles–Ursula’s mother in particular whose role in the novel’s conclusion was ingenious. Life After Life is a long book, as befitting a life lived over and over again, and I savoured its slowness, the returns to where I’d been before, places and people I was happy to revisit. I appreciated the specificity of its detail, the brilliance of its writing, its genre-blurring, its daringness in reframing the shape of a narrative, and yes, this is Kate Atkinson, so there is going to be that too.

accusationAccusation by Catherine Bush:

Bush’s novels are always planted much more in concept than narrative and plot, and they are markedly unusual for this. They are also remarkable for their realism, details that plant the stories deep in the ground, on very specific sidewalks and streets, so that a book about a mother orbiting the Earth in Outer Space seems not so far from one’s own experience at all (as in her first novel Minus Time), and so too with this this novel about a journalist driven to explore a(n alleged) crime committed an ocean away amidst a community of street children turned circus acrobats. And this is just one way that this novel turns in on itself as we read it, for it is a story about how we project our own experiences upon those of others (and indeed, as Madeleine Thien read the novel through the lens of race, which never even occurred to me).

roostRoost by Ali Bryan:

What I love best about this novel is that nobody ever changes. There is no great revelation. Claudia’s brother is still the jerk he was when the novel began, there is no fix for her father’s heartache, and even Claudia begins to see that her ex is moving away into a life of his own. But all the same, it’s okay, or it’s going to be. This is not aHow the Failed Housewife Learned to Get Along With the Vacuum kind of tale, but instead it’s about how Claudia learns to draw on her reserves, that herself exactly as she is has the capacity to roll with the punches better than anyone else. When life is messy, bumpy and hard, it’s because that’s what life is, and not because you’re doing it wrong

9781926531304_cover_coverbookpageThe House on Sugarbush Road by Meira Cook:

There is no expressway into the Johannesburg of Méira Cook’s novel The House on Sugarbush Road. Instead, the roads are twisting and clogged with traffic, detritus, pedestrians on the roadside calling out in a language you don’t understand. This is a novel that is disorienting to encounter, hard to get one’s bearings in; the reader travels blindly along these foreign streets, trusting in the story and its teller. And as the story progresses, the trust builds. While The House on Sugarbush Road is Méira Cook’s first novel, she is widely published (and lauded) as a poet, she worked as a journalist in her native South Africa, and her prose gorgeously reflects the former while her novel’s approach shows the latter. The effect is brutal, surprising, and provokes an incredibly visceral reaction.

wave-by-sonali-deraniyagalaWave by Sonali Deraniyagala:

The key to this book, I think, and its usefulness for us, lies in a particular word that occurs at least twice. First, when she returns to her family’s London home and comes upon their back garden in early morning, the sight of a snail making its way across the patio table: “They would be so stirred by this.” Later, she writes about her husband who’d grown up on a council estate in East London, and his first trip to the Natural History Museum when he was six years old. At the sight of a life-sized model of a blue whale: “this was the most stirred he’d ever been.”

To be stirred then, to have our quiet disturbed. Perhaps this is why we should read this, or any book. A gentler version of Kafka’s frozen sea, and I like that. Not fortifying, but instead (and not merely) our reason for being.

Pure-Gold-Baby-200x300The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble:

It’s such a strange novel: we are taken through the decades of a group of mothers in London and learn which marriages ended, which children succeeded, which others went wayward (and how there was no telling of who would be who). This is a novel about friendship, and how we tell each other stories, about how we become characters in the stories of one another’s lives. It’s about mental health, public health, institutions. It’s a novel full of facts, pages of passages that read like non-fiction. It’s about progress, and the illusion of progress.

Pure Gold Drabble, is what it is. And so naturally, I loved it.

woodWood by Jennica Harper:

Jennica Harper is the poet whose books I stay up reading late into the night. She has uncanny ability to zero in on my fascinations, articulate questions I’ve vaguely wondered about, to use the very things located in the world around me (songs, cultural lore, television characters, celebrity references) and spin their own mythology. In a recent conversation, she asked, “Is there such thing as a “gateway poet”? That’s what I’d like to be.” And she has certainly succeeded at this, most recently with her latest collection, the beautiful, quietly powerful Wood.

oh-my-darlingOh My Darling by Shaena Lambert:

And I love that, that here is a collection where I can tell you about the book, its themes, its shape, rather than just telling you the plots of three or four of the stories I liked best.Oh, My Darling doesn’t actually reference Clementine, which wikipedia has revealed to me is actually a satire (because who would write a song about a drowned girl whose feet were so big she had to wear boxes instead of shoes?) But its preoccupations are just as morbid, and so darkly humorously so at times that I am sure that Lambert knew about the satire. That tireless refrain, powered by blustery, lust-ery, souls laid bare. So much feeling for something seemingly shallow. Sound going nowhere. Just imagine how it would echo in a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mile…

cottonopolisCottonopolis by Rachel Lebowitz:

But most remarkably for this book that uses language to build a museum is that the language itself is easily and unabashedly the work’s most remarkable aspect. I love the stories here, the history, but I can’t help but catch my mind on a line like “The trill of the/ robin, the trickle of the rill.” Or my favourite poem in the collection, “Exhibit 33: Muslin Dress” which turns language inside out in order to sew the whole world up into a tidy purse: “Here are the railway lines and there are the shipping/ lines. Here’s the factory line. The line of children in the/ mines. The chimney lines. There is the line: from the/ cotton gin to the Indian.”

9780143182337HBobcat by Rebecca Lee:

Rebecca Lee’s short stories share the same approach as Sarah Selecky’s, the same intimate first-person narration, close attention to detail  that sets these characters as very much of this world (lines like “Lizbet basically knew how to live a happy life, and this was revealed in her trifle–she put in what she loved and left out what she didn’t”)–as well as dinner-party settings and fork on the cover. But on the other side, Lee’s marvelous telescoping endings and ultimate broadness of perspective remind me of the stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies. (I think “Bobcat” may join Lahiri’s “The Fifth and Final Continent” as one of my favourite short stories ever.) These stories were written over two decades and accordingly the collection lacks a certain cohesion, except for (and this is significant) the solidity of Lee’s voice.

the-love-monsterThe Love Monster by Missy Marston:

We come along with Margaret on her trip to rock-bottom, though the omniscient narrator also embraces Margaret’s mother, her co-workers, even the evil ex, the alien, and invests them with a powerful sympathy, an investigation of the kernel of sadness which lives within us all. The lines, the straight-talk, the music that Margaret plugs into her ears, the disasters–this Canadian book is hilarious, and will never, ever win the Leacock Prize (which is some kind of endorsement). It’s funny, and quirky, but not cute, and it’s terribly profound. Really amazing writing.

the-woman-upstairs The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud:

Messud’s novel is also structured as a fun-house, trap-doors and booby-traps springing up if the reader makes the mistake of taking Nora at her word. Which is a difficult mistake to avoid–Nora’s voice is so forceful, persuasive, she perpetually speaks in generalizations and second-person address designed to make us feel comfortable, familiar. “Don’t all women feel the same?” she asks, and you’d be hard-pressed not to respond with a nod, but then, no! There is no such thing as “all women” anyway, and besides, Nora Eldridge is clearly unhinged. On top of being an unreliable trickster of a narrator, she is also blatantly wrong, about so many things, but most notably in her insistence on regarding the world within the limits of gendered binary terms. In this way, the novel recalls Carol Shields’ Unless, another book in which an enraged female narrator stamps her ladylike foot at the systematic repression of womankind, institutionalized sexism which completely exists, but her singular focus upon this obscures a far more complicated reality. Which is not to say that Nora Eldrige’s or Reta Winter’s rage is misplaced, that either should cease their foot-stamping, but just that there is ever and will be ever more to the story.

are-you-ready-to-be-luckyAre You Ready to be Lucky? by Rosemary Nixon:

So let’s break the silence then, shall we? Rosemary Nixon’s collection of linked short stories is one of the funniest, most original books I’ve read this year. I started reading it on Friday, found it hard to put down, and had devoured it by Sunday afternoon. Are you ready to be lucky, indeed.

StoryOfHappyMarriage+hc+cThis is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett:

But Patchett does channel Didion in Fact Vs. Fiction when she writes, “We all turn our lives into stories. It is a defining characteristic of our species.” And this is the triumph of her book, how it turns the self-help trope inside out. Ann Patchett doesn’t have the answers, but what she has instead are stories and – like life itself – these can be more complicated and unfathomable than we’d ever believe of fiction.

gamacheHow the Light Gets In by Louise Penny:

What is the attraction of Louise Penny’s novels, my reservations with her prose still being what they are? I think part of it is the intimacy she creates, between reader and place in her remarkably evoked village of Three Pines. And also the intimacy between the characters themselves, so much between them that doesn’t need to be explained, allowing the novels to progress in ways that are surprising. And finally, the intimacy of her narrative, her shifting points of view which enable us to understand her world from a wide range of perspectives. Which is not to say that her readers know everything. In fact, in this book in particular, the plot is operating on a whole other plane that readers are not even aware of until an incredible twist at the conclusion, and I promise that you never see it coming.

children-of-air-indiaThe Children of Air India by Renee Sarojini Saklikar:

This poetry collection is beautiful, devastating, difficult and important. Difficult in terms of subject matter, but yet the narrative was so compelling, N herself leading the reader through so many lives and stories, plot and intrigue. Throughout, I needed to take short pauses because it all was a little too much, but then I’d pick the book right up again, the poetry accessible and fascinating, rich with history and voices.

bernadetteWhere’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple:

Apparently Maria Semple’s novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was one of the biggest books of last year, but perhaps I wasn’t paying attention. Someone who was paying attention, however, was Stuart, who took note when I picked this book up in the store and casually remarked, “I’m kind of interested in this one,” and proceeded to buy me the book for Mother’s Day. I saved it for postpartum, because I had a feeling, and oh, what a good feeling it was. Two nights ago, Iris’s all night eating/fussy fits began, and I was so glad to have this book on hand. My mind is fuzzy and there is no way I could write a coherent review, but it’s an endorsement, I think, that on Saturday night when I was up from 12am until 5am feeding the baby, all I could really think of was, “Yes! I get to read more Bernadette!”

the-faraway-nearbyThe Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit:

And so it’s like this, a fantastic journey through a terrain with someone who sees deeper into the world than you’ve ever begun to imagined. Solnit is author of a book with the title A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and she makes digression into an art here, though it always winds back around eventually, the narrative accumulating. Winding, threading, Rapunzel and Penelope, spinning and spinsters. She makes connections between virtual threads and literal threads and fabric, and it all comes down to stories. It always does. “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds.” What shape should a book be in a world where that is a fact?

the-goldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt:

For nearly two weeks, I was reading The Goldfinch, carting it everywhere I went, having to pull out a bigger purse in order to accommodate its heft at 771 pages, my hand cramping as I read it while breastfeeding. I ripped the dust jacket when I tried to tear off a sticker, and then took the dust jacket off altogether when it started getting tatty from the travel. After that, I put the book down on the table on something green, and then the cover started to disintegrate when I wiped the stain off with a damp cloth. I don’t usually treat my books so poorly, butThe Goldfinch is so large and solid, a piece of furniture nearly. It has presence, is lived with, is experienced. And it is interesting to think about my wear-and-tear on the book when I consider how much of the book is about what time does to physical objects. The Goldfinch is about its thingness just as much as it is about its text.

projectionProjection: Encounters With My Runaway Mother by Priscila Uppal:

It has become standard to refer to memoirists as “brave”, but I can’t help doing the same for Uppal, with the caveat that “brave” means something totally different here, something substantial. First, Uppal’s bravery in staring down this woman, her mother, who is clearly unhinged and exists in the alternate reality her love of movies provides. Uppal dares to confront her, but also dares to understand her, however unforgivingly. She is also brave to not forgive, or to have her story not adhere to standard narratives, to have a happy ending. She refuses to compromise, but also manages to see her story from all points of view. She is brave to take a story with so much pain and turn it into art that’s so extraordinary.

the-interestingsThe Interestings by Meg Wolitzer:

The structure of The Interestings is fascinating, the novel weaving back and forth through time without great shifts, effortless for the reader to follow and seemingly effortless for the writer too, though I can’t imagine that this was really the case. And yes, it is so interesting, a book so terrific to be absorbed in and whose end (at page 468) arrives too soon.



October 24, 2013

Lois Lowry!

anastasiaagainloislowrySeven years ago, I sent Lois Lowry a fan-email to tell her how much her Anastasia Krupnik books had meant to be growing up, and she sent a kind and gracious reply. Three days ago, apropos of a conversation with Helen Spitzer on Twitter, I changed my profile picture to the cover of Anastasia Again! And then today, I discovered that Lois Lowry, Anastasia’s creator, was giving a lecture at the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, mere blocks from my house. Today was also important, because it was Iris’s first time rolling off the couch, which was slightly traumatic, but not so much because she is my second baby. Also because she is my second baby: I can go out whenever I want, even if it’s for the third time in seven days, whereas with Harriet, I didn’t leave the house in the evening for nine months. So I went to the Lois Lowry lecture tonight.

(Yes, I am slightly wired. I don’t sleep much anyway, and then Jennica Harper’s new book turns up in the post, and it’s so good that I’m up late late on Monday reading it. And then yesterday, I discover that Margaret Drabble has a new novel, which is so fantastic that all I want to do is read, and that then today I get to be in the same room as Lois Lowry? Where do weeks like this one come from? [And yes, Iris is fine. Really. No injuries sustained. She actually landed on her bum, which was kind of weird because I looked down and she was just sitting on the floor, and I thought, “How did you get there?”])

Helen phoned me tonight to confirm I was going, and thought she’d stop by a bookstore en-route to pick up some Lowry and cram. What a fantastic idea, I thought, and calculated the unlikelihood of me finishing dinner, doing story-time, feeding Iris, and going to Book City in a twenty-five minute period, leaving enough time to get to the lecture. And then I started remembering Anastasia, and realized I’d never forgotten anything about her ever. I didn’t need to read up. And that she was incredibly important to who I wanted to be when I was young, and to who I am today.

Her parents, Myron and Kathryn Krupnik, and Myron’s old flame Annie, who turned out to be terrible. Anastasia who was in love with Washburn Cummings, who was black and always bouncing a basketball. How her father, a Harvard Professor, criticized her for using the word, “Weird,” which I still never write, because I hear Myron Krupnik saying, “Anastasia, you live in a house that’s full of books. Surely you can come up with a better word than that?” Her baby brother Sam, who was the weird one. One day she walked into a room and there he was, and he told her, “I am eating ice.” How she put her dad’s Billie Holiday albums on the radiator and they melted, and I didn’t know who Billie Holiday was (though I DID know what albums and radiators were), and got confused with Buddy Holly. How Anastasia got a job working for a rich lady called Mrs. Bellingham, and how, echoing her employer, Anastasia referred to residents of a public housing complex as “the great unwashed”, and her father blew a gasket. Her mother was an artist and always splattered with paint, wore jeans. Anastasia had the same reservations that I do about “the suburbs”, though I’d change my mind too if I ended up in a room with a tower. I love how her parents were so intelligent in their parenting, how they treated her like a person. I like how they were individuals in their own rights, with their own first names. These books introduced me to Freud (which was pronounced “Fraud”, I imagined), GertrudeStein (who was Anastasia’s next door neighbour, and she had a fish, I think, and a short-lived marriage with a man called Lloyd, who’d insisted the double L had a y sound). I remember Anastasia’s boyfriend, who was called Steve Harvey and wasn’t at all weird, and how he had no qualms about a girlfriend with glasses and intellectual leanings. Oh, and that other boy, with the briefcase, and how Anastasia had told him that her brother was disabled, which led to an enormous misunderstanding.

I remember buying Anastasia books at the World’s Biggest Bookstore on trips to Toronto, and we’ve forgotten how amazing that store seemed at the time. It was also there that I bought Pollyanna, with a foreword by Lois Lowry, which contained the phrase, “Goodness triumphs. I like that!” which I like very much too, except I misread it as, “Goodness turnips” and thought it a most peculiar expression.

I read her other books too–A Summer to Die, Find a Stranger Say Goodbye. I read The Giver just a few years ago, though it was not so much my thing. She told us tonight that her publisher asked her to stop writing Anastasia books, said her appeal had been exhausted, but never! What a spectacular heroine, smart and utterly herself. Which is what Lowry herself seemed like at the lecture, which was fascinating, funny, touching and wonderful. I left the house in a hurry and forgot to bring a pen and paper, so I didn’t take notes, but that was sort of nice, actually, because I got to just sit back and listen, and it was so enjoyable to do so.

She talked about being born into a family of readers, about being read it and learning to read. About the books that first impressed her, discovering how words worked, learning to tell stories through an elaborate lie she told to impress a counsellor at camp. She talked about her sister who’d died young, and about how, upon her death, she finally understood what a writing instructor had meant when he’d told her that she would need to suffer a loss before she could really write, and how she turned that experience into story. About how she lived in Japan as a child, riding her bike around post-war Tokyo, and the boy she knew but never spoke to, and how they met again on a stage years later when she won the Newbery Award and he was being awarded the Caldecott Medal for Grandfather’s Journey–he was the illustrator Allen Say. She showed us a still from a video of her playing on a Hawaiian beach in 1940 with her grandmother, and how eventually she realizes that it’s the USS Arizona in the background, which would be destroyed just over a year later, all the men on board killed. “And this is what literature is,” she told us. “The putting together of things.”

it was an extraordinary lecture, and something to behold: the actual sight of this woman whose books I’ve been reading for over 25 years now. I will be introducing Anastasia to my daughters, because apparently she’e just come back into print. But in the meantime, I bought Harriet one of Lowry’s books called Gooney Bird Greene, and tomorrow we will read it together.

October 21, 2013

Excellent Mail Haul

TodayIMG_20131021_131147 was a very good day for the mail haul. Iris’s passport finally arrived, which is a good thing as we’re off to England in a few weeks. We also received a pair of orange socks for Iris, on the occasion of her first Halloween (thanks, Mom!). And then two books, one the latest collection by Karen Connelly, whose work I’ve admired for a long time now. And then Jennica Harper’s new book Wood, which is oh so exciting, because it’s not every day that you get a new book by one of your favourite writers ever. Very excited about this. Oh, what treasures a mailbox can hold!

April 3, 2013

The Sally Draper Poems

mad-men-sally-draperWhile I never finished reading The Collected Stories of John Cheever, which has been sitting on the table before me now for more than 2 years, my literary obsession with Mad Men continues, as does my obsession with Mad Men in general. (We have spent the last while rewatching the entire series, and are now partway through Season 4. We will save Season 6 until our baby sleeps for at least an hour at a time. Basically, I do not care to acknowledge that there are any other televisions shows in the world.)

So I was overjoyed to read “The Sally Draper Poems”, written by one of my favourite poets Jennica Harper. These poems are so very good, demonstrating Harper’s sharp wit, gift for voice, and her amazing sympathy with a young girl’s perspective. I love the texture that they add to the Mad Men universe.

See also:

April 1, 2010

Good things come in gorgeous packages

Poetry collections are some of the most beautiful books in my library. They have gorgeous cover designs, seductive embossments, such carefully chosen fonts, wonderfully fibrous paper that sets off the white space,  cut with such crisp edges. A lot of this, I think, is because so many of these books come from independent presses and reflect the care that these presses put into each detail of their books.

My all-time favourite cover design is from Alison Smith’s Six Mats and One Year (from Gaspereau Press), whose cover is is divided into rectangles like a six mat tatami room. I’ve got a thing for running my fingers along the octopus legs on Jennica Harper’s first collection The Octopus and Other Poems (from Signature Editions). I love the bird on Kerry Ryan’s The Sleeping Life (The Muses Company), the girl on Laurel Snyder’s The Myth of the Simple Machines (No Tell Books), I love how The Essential PK Page is like a bouquet of pressed flowers (from Porcupine’s Quill), and that tree from Susan Telfer’s House Beneath (Hagios Press), sprawling, gnarled and rooted.

It’s shallow, I know, to love poetry for its packaging, to covet books as objects, but I can’t help it if I do. It’s only the beginning of the story, of course, but it’s an important part, and it’s fortunate that so many poets and publishers think seem to feel the same.

Honestly, e-books will never hold a candle.

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