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Pickle Me This

August 28, 2012

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton

It occurs to me that I could write a swimming memoir too. I was never, ever a competitive swimmer, but my life has been punctuated by pools, shores and bathing suits. There was the pool in Bangkok in 2004, with my husband, who was my boyfriend, when we were marooned in the city after missing a flight and we went swimming together for the first time in our two years together and discovered a whole new level on which we connected, that we both adored the water. There were the turquoise rectangles and kidneys that dotted the backyards of my childhood suburban landscape, the yards you’d calculate to be invited into on the very hottest days.

I learned to swim at Iroquois Park in Whitby Ontario, and then at the Allan Marshall Pool at Trent University after my family moved to Peterborough. I met my best friend at the Trent pool, at swimming lessons when we were both 13, and seven years later we’d be swimming together at a reservoir when someone pulled a body out of the water.

There were hotel and motel pools with my sister when our family was on vacations. Our backyard pool during my teenage years. The Hart House Pool at UofT, which I swam every day when I was pregnant (which was the same time at which I’d become obsessed with reading books about swimming). And also the Turkish bath in Budapest, where I once went swimming a long time ago when I was pregnant but did not want to be.

And this is the impact that Leanne Shapton’s beautiful books always have on me, her own experiences or her imagined ones leaving me awash in my own thoughts, memories and questions– see my posts on Native Trees of Canada and Important Artifacts. For me, her books point away from themselves, even in their remarkableness and their beauty as objects. (Shapton is a book designer, as well as an author and illustrator.) Which is not to say that her latest, Swimming Studies, is not an incredible book, one of the best I’ve read this year. In her curious collection of sketches-cum-memoir, Shapton teases out the connections between her past as an Olympic swimmer and her present day experiences as an artist in New York City. How did she get from there to here? How do her two selves inform each other? Are they really so separate after all? How does the discipline required for athleticism inform an artist’s life?

Swimming Studies is an exercise in nostalgia, a love letter to places where we no longer belong. I was never, ever a competitive swimmer, but I remember the kids in my class who always smelled like chlorine, which made their skin flake and their hair turn green. I remember their t-shirts that said, “No Pain No Spain.” I remember Victor Davis and Alex Baumann, and in 1984 I was in the crowd at an Anne Ottenbrite Parade, celebrating her gold medal, the very first parade I’d ever seen that didn’t end with reindeer. I found it all fascinating and strange.

But I remember too having strong feelings about the logos on my sweatshirts. Shapton writes, “When I follow a trend (plastic bracelets, neon lycra), I get nervous. Mosquitos and wasps are attracted to my fluorescent-yellow sweatshirt. I spent an unhappy year in seventh grade trying to look preppy with the wrong ingredients…” She writes of her older brother, “I was always watching Derek for signs of what was possible, how to make decisions, what to like and how to tell. I knew he wanted to lose me, and I tried to keep my distance, but I wore the same Converse All Stars as he did, the same jeans…” One chapter begins, “My first visit to Ottawa was with my sixth-grade class…” I know these reference points, Phil Collins playing on the car radio. Watching through windows for your mom’s headlights, for her car  to pull into the lot to take you home.

Swimming Studies is a difficult book to explain, and I’m glad that I get to review it in my blog so that I don’t necessarily have to. That I can simply say that the whole thing just works, for no reason I can really fathom. Leanne Shapton writes about ponds and pools she has known– the Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond, the pool at the Chateau Laurier, the baths in Bath, and so many others. She writes about morning practice: “Ever present is the smell of chlorine, and the drifting of snow in the dark.” A many-page spread displays her extensive bathing suit collection. She includes drawings of her teenage swim teammates, with brief biographies for each: “I’m not crazy about Stacy since noticing that she copied onto her own shoes the piano keys I drew on the inside of my sneakers.” About quitting swimming twice, and how the swimmer inside her cannot be shaken, and how she’s had to learn to live with her. Paintings of pools, of figures in the water. A chapter on her obsession with Jaws, with Jaws as metaphor. Her fascination with athletics, with athletes who aren’t champions: “Their swims, games, marches aren’t redemptive. Their trajectories don’t set up victory.”

It works, and maybe you have to understand the lost world that she’s conjuring in order to really get it, or maybe you just have to understand the nature of lost worlds at all.

**

I bought my copy of Swimming Studies on Saturday on the way home from a splendid afternoon at the Christie Pits pool, the pool that this wonderful hot summer has given us many occasions to appreciate. Our visit was particularly notable because the water slide was on, and also because it was the debut of my brand new bathing suit which I’ve been waiting all summer for. It’s my mail-order bathing suit, an idea that was always going to turn into a saga. It’s the Esther Williams Class Sheath, which I purchased after seeing it endorsed by trusted bloggers at Making It Lovely and Girl’s Gone Child. It arrived too late for our vacation, but actually fit (albeit snugly, requiring me to do a funny little dance in order to get into it). And it’s lovely, so I was happy to have an opportunity to wear it when summer came back to us this weekend. We didn’t bring our camera when we went to Christie Pits, so I decided to wear my suit again the next day at the wading pool, just so you can see how excellent it is. No ordinary bathing suit would drive me to post a photo of me wearing it on the internet, let me tell you. So maybe this is the beginning of a new internet meme called Book Bloggers in Bathing Suits? Like all proper book bloggers, however, with our sensitive skin and lack of propensity for pin-up-ness, I’ve had to delay this big reveal for a week or two because I was waiting for a rash to go away.

March 29, 2019

Nature All Around: Trees, by Pamela Hickman and Carolyn Gavin

My nine year old daughter Harriet knows everything, and she continually surprises me. Because who was it that taught her about constellations, garden slugs, axolotls, or the life cycle of a piraña? It wasn’t me, who still sometimes gets tulips and daffodils mixed up, and didn’t actually know what an iris looked like until after I’d given that name to a human. But it’s not altogether a mystery, where Harriet gets her knowledge from, because she’s an avid reader of nonfiction, devouring the “Do you know…” series from Fitzhenry and Whiteside, and Elise Gravel’s “Disgusting Critters” books. Every time we go to the library, she picks up another books about animals or plants—for a while she was really into fungi. (She also really likes Jess Keating’s books, her nonfiction and her novels alike.) But I have to confess that with some rare exceptions, children’s nonfiction books don’t really do it for me.

But then along comes Nature All Around: Trees, by Pamela Hickman and illustrated by Carolyn Gavin, a book that has been given a permanent home on our coffee table. Because it’s gorgeous, just the thing for those of us who are wild about botanical paintings, and a sensibility not dissimilar to Leanne Shapton’s beautiful Native Trees of Canada (with a sprinkling of Carson Ellis and Esme Shapiro).

I love this book! It’s beautiful just to leaf through (ha ha) with its paintings of leaves in their glorious variety, and filled with fascinating tree facts, the difference between a simple leaf and a compound leaf, explanations of photosynthesis, pollination, and features on “strange trees” like the 23-story tall sequoia that’s probably 2000 years old, or the larch tree, which is special because it’s coniferous and deciduous at once.

The terrible thing is that because I am not nine, my mind is a sieve, and I can never remember anything, which is a good excuse to keep this book on the coffee table—in addition to its pleasing aesthetics—because then I get to read it over and over again.

PS Another tree book I’m super looking forward to this spring is Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forests, by the amazing Ariel Gordon.

September 11, 2018

I am a swimmer

What I have to show for my last decade in athletics is not a whole lot—I once signed up for ten yoga classes but only went to one, and we still have the evidence of the running shoes my husband bought me when I decided to take up jogging that show remarkably little wear. Which is just two examples, and narratively anti-climactic, but it underlines the point I’m trying to make: I dislike most forms of exercise so much that I rarely quit them, because I’d have to join them first. Not doing things I dislike doing is pretty much the cornerstone of my approach to being alive: I don’t want to push through the pain, or feel the burn. If being miserable, even for limited periods of time, is a pre-requisite for physical activity, than take my name off the list. For a while I made do with a stationary bicycle, because while riding it at least I could read.

But now—like the shoes, and like the yoga passes nearly a decade expired, the stationary bicycle sits unused—draped with winter coats in an upstairs closet. It’s been at least two years since I’ve sat upon its little seat and spun its futile wheels into nowhere—but not for the reason you might be thinking. Oh, no. Because it’s also been two years now since I purchased a membership to the university athletic centre near my house. A membership I bought (inspired by Lindsay) just after getting a raise at my job and therefore being able to afford to put my youngest daughter in full-day preschool, which left time in the day for some kind of physical activity. I would go swimming, I decided. Maybe this would be a thing I could do, and I wouldn’t quit, because it wouldn’t be awful.

And it wasn’t, and I didn’t. And in the next few days, I will renew my membership again. Because I love it, swimming. I love it so much, I get up early in the morning to do it, much to the surprise of the people who know me, because it’s the only thing I’ve ever gotten out of bed for, and before 7am either. Four days a week (but not Friday, because on Friday everyone at rec swim is crammed into half of the 50 metre pool—the long half and not the short half—and it’s crowded and unpleasant) I wake up at 6:50 am and wriggle into my bathing suit, which is set out with my towel. Throw on clothes over top and rush to the pool, where I’m in the water by 7:15, and I swim for half an hour. During which I think, catalogue anxieties, solve plot problems, compose blog posts, try to remember all the verses to “American Pie,” and swim back and forth in the medium lane. Which is so my speed—the medium lane. It’s where I like to be.

I’ve loved swimming for a long time—I was lucky to have a pool in my backyard when I was growing up, and so even though I failed Bronze Cross twice because I couldn’t do the timed swim, I recall spending ages under water, turning somersaults, leaping high, partaking in an agility I did not partake in on dry land. When I lived in England, I longed for lakes, and once went swimming in a pond just to get my fix. One day on holiday in 2004, Stuart and I jumped into a hotel pool  and discovered after two years together that we both liked swimming a lot, so much so that later in the week we’d jump into another hotel pool even though it was green, and I’d get a rash—me getting a rash will become a running theme here. And when I was pregnant with Harriet, I worked at the university, and went swimming every day on my lunch hour, delighting in the freedom of movement, and of floating suspended the way my baby was—the very first thing we ever did together.

But it’s hard to fit swimming into a busy life. For a long time, swimming was a special occasion, and I started buying expensive mail-order movie star bathing costumes to better suit my weird-postpartum body. But the thing that no one tells you about movie star bathing suits is that when you wear them a lot in chlorine, they become worn out and hideous. Six years later, my body even weirder and more-postpartum, I buy unflattering sporty suits from the clearance rack, because I like the uniform, its utilitarian nature. I am not a bathing beauty, I am a swimmer. I am a swimmer. In Swell: A Waterbiograpy, Jenny Landreth writes about the power of this realization, her reluctance to own it, how we undermine our abilities—”I’m not that good. And I’m not fast.” To belong in a space like a pool, a gym. I have a place here. It has been two years, and I am a swimmer.

I am allergic to lake water, and have a sunlight sensitivity that a lot of other people have tried to tell me that they have experienced too, and some of them have, but not the ones who say, “It’s like a heat rash, right?” Because those people have never had their eyelids swell up or been unable to sleep for unbearable itching. This year was the third summer in a row that I’ve gone through in big hats and SPF clothing, including a purple hoodie I wear in the water. (The photo above is me like a normal person in a bathing suit just because I wanted a photo opportunity. Naturally, after three minutes of sun exposure, I got a rash, but the photo was worth it.) And so it’s a bit absurd that I love swimming and beaches more than I ever did, when a practical person might find a different kind of pursuit—badminton? But we make it work. We have a sun tent so I can beach all day and stay in the shade, and when I go to the beach I always bring a bathing suit to change into, because my lake water allergy kicks in when I sit around in wet bathing suits. (I know, I know. I am infinitely sexy.) And while this is inconvenient, the result is that I now have so many bathing suits. While we were away on holiday by a lake in the summer, I marvelled at the array of them drying on pegs in our cottage bathroom—I have so many bathing suits. Because I’m allergic to lake water, okay, but also because I am a swimmer. I am a swimmer.

And I love that, having so many bathing suits. Some of which look really good on me and others (see the purple one above: NOT FLATTERING) do not, but how I look is not even the point (although it certainly is in this stunning photo to the left), but what I can do: swimsuits are for swimming. I am a swimmer. And once upon a time I paid a lot of money for a bathing suit that made me feel good, and I know there are other women for whom bathing suit shopping is a form of torture, and some women who won’t appear in public in a bathing suit at all. Whereas I have a bathing suit bouquet. And as a woman on the cusp of being forty, I see this as an accomplishment I’m proud of, how it sets the kind of example I want to set for the two small women I gave birth to. An indication that I’m right where I want to be at this point in my life, a good and fortunate place.

A place which is, often, literally flying.

August 25, 2016

The Body Book, by Roz MacLean

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If my copy of Lindy West’s Shrill hadn’t been from the library, among the countless parts I would have underlined would have included the part where she states that she’s never actually hated her body, or felt loathing toward it, but instead was just all too aware that the rest of the world thought that it didn’t conform to its standard. Which has always been my experience, for the most part (which, full disclosure, is also fairly easy for me to say, because my body has rarely deviated very radically from the standard, and let me tell you, there were some years when my body was pretty smoking’ hot [1997 and 2007 in particular were good years; maybe it’s a decennial thing, in which I’m holding out big hopes for the forthcoming annum]).

Truth: I’m still working on losing the baby weight from my second pregnancy—if by “working on losing the baby weight” you mean “eating a lot of croissants and not giving a fuck about the baby weight.”

I’ve always aspired to be quite at home in my body. When I was 17 and wrote for a teen section in our community paper, I plagiarized an article I’d read in a teen magazine about the contentment of a girl who’s eating a McDonalds hot fudge sundae—I wanted to feel that good about myself. That I had to steal the idea though is perfectly telling.

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In 2001, I made my friends come with me to the nude beach at Hanlon’s Point when I stripped down to nothing and walked across a beach full of people on my way for a swim, which was truly a life-changing and empowering experience.

In 2012, I took a photograph of myself in a bathing suit and put it on the internet, which I thought was a big deal at the time (and I hadn’t even gained the baby weight!).

Last week I did the same thing again, but by now this didn’t feel remarkable. (What I wrote beside the image did though. “So glad to live in this body,” I captioned the photo, which is, in all honestly, one of the most subversive, badass things a woman can say, and what does that say about us?). And the single biggest thing that I can credit for finally attaining the self-acceptance I’ve been chasing for two decades is this one thing, or two?

I have daughters.

When I became a mother, I made several promises to myself, many of which I eventually broke (including, I will always speak kind and respectfully to my children; I will never bitch at them for reading too much [I know!—but seriously, put the book down, Harriet]; and I will never suddenly exclaim in the middle of an afternoon, “Oh my god, oh my god, all of you, now, just GO AWAY!”). But one promise I have forever stayed true to is that my children will never hear me say a negative word about my appearance. Not one. Because I think that as much as some women may dislike their appearances, all the more omnipresent is the fact that we’re kind of taught that we have to. It’s how to be a woman. Permitting yourself four almonds for a snack, and worrying about “muffin tops” and back fat. So much of it is a learned behaviour, if even by osmosis, and of course it is, because it’s everywhere.

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But not in our house. There came a point when I realized our eldest was listening to every word we said and then I stopped whining, “I feel fat” and “I’m ugly!” to my husband whenever I was feeling blah (and let me tell you, other than me, there is no one involved in my personal transformation who has benefitted more than my husband, who apparently doesn’t miss my insecure neediness. Who knew?). I started delivering non-sequiturs at dinner like, “Man, I sure like my freckles,” and “I think my hair looks really pretty today” (about as naturally, at first, as I might bring up topical ideas like online porn or bullying, the kinds of talks you gotta have).

The think about fake it ’til you make it though, is that it’s kind of true. In my experience, there are only so many times you can say, “I sure love how strong my arms are” or “I really like the way I look in this dress” before you start…meaning it. Before you start actually looking for things about you to like and love, because of course it’s good for your daughters, but the thing about it that you never expected is that it’s also good for you.

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And so this is why I love Roz MacLean’s The Body Book, a simple little paperback with enormous ramifications. Because a mother is going to pick up this book for her child, and they’re both going to enjoy the story’s celebration of bodies of all kinds, shapes, sizes, and abilities: “Some bodies are round./ Some bodies are straight./ Some bodies are wavy./ All bodies are GREAT!!!” She writes about bodies that swim and play, and dance all day, and bodies that love hugs, and bodies that need space, and rocking bodies and rolling bodies, and wibbly bodies, and wobbly bodies too.

All well and good, illustrated with simple cheerful images of blobby bodies in a rainbow of colours all doing what bodies do.

The very best thing about The Body Book though, the most excellent and profound, is that every time that mother reads the book, she’s going to have to deliver the line, “I love my body. Do you love yours too?” A line that, as I’ve stated, is actually one of the bravest, most amazing things that a woman can say.

And I love that once that mother has said it enough, there is a chance she might actually mean it.

July 12, 2015

The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits

folded clockOn Monday evening, I became overwhelmed by an irrational compulsion to go out and purchase a copy of Heidi Julavits’ new book, The Folded Clock: A Diary. Like I really needed another book, but there was something about this one—I’d been reading about it at edge of evening over the past month or so—and I not only had a car (I was visiting my parents in Peterborough where the chain bookstore is open late) but I had no one sensible to talk me out of  an out-of-the-way jaunt to the bookstore past the children’s bedtime, so we went and I am so glad we did. It would be a shame if my totally irrational compulsion purchase turned to be disappointing, but it was amazing, mind-blowing. I read it once and then went through it again in my hammock yesterday, making notes, trying to figure the whole thing out. It doesn’t hurt that the cover designer is Leanne Shapton, though the only bad thing about that is that the cover got damaged in my bag and now I am a little bit devastated.

The Folded Clock is a diary, though it’s a most peculiar diary. Chronology is jettisoned in favour of an arrangement of time that is and isn’t wholly random. A year’s worth of entries, each one beginning with, “Today I…” The book’s inspiration, Julavits writes, coming from an experience she had revisiting the diaries of her young, writing that she’d always imagined was her foundation as a writer, and finding instead of a foundation that, “The actual diaries revealed me to possess the mind of a paranoid tax auditor.” Time itself, she notes, had changed, becoming sweeping, a simple day insubstantial. She’d also recently borne a serious illness, one that challenged her perceptions of time: “It was no longer linear; it did not cut through my day like a road. I did not see time ahead of me. I experienced time on top of me.”

the-folded-clock-a-diaryTime is a preoccupation of the entries in The Folded Clock, as evidenced by the title. Time itself not linear—many of the “Today I…” entries are actually about events decades-old, inspired by objects or experiences in the present day—and there is the issue of the construction of the book itself, which was deeply revised and shaped over another period of time divorced from the immediacy of the diary. Parenthood is another preoccupation connected to time—the impossibly tiny span of a childhood, which spins out of our control, and then conversely (but not really), the unbearable vastness of time in a child’s company: “how can this day not mostly involve my waiting for it to be over?”

The diary’s various settings become familiar—the writer’s apartment in New York City, the community in Maine where Julavits, her husband and their children spend their summers, the German villa where they’re living while her husband is on a fellowship, and various artist retreats to which she escapes throughout the year. There is nothing haphazard in the entries’ arrangement, so that we’re introduced to a concept or thing or incident and will be referenced later, our knowledge taken for granted. Less obviously, the entries seem contextualized from a future vantage point so that each one takes its reader somewhere—a mini-essay every one. There is cohesion to the entire project, though the patterns are difficult to discern. Which is the point, Julavits points out, in one of the several clues she offers throughout the book pertaining to its curious construction:

“What’s on the page appears to have busted out of my head and traveled down my arms and through my fingers and my keyboard and coalesced on the screen. But it didn’t happen like that; it never happens like that.”

The Folded Clock is a book about the puzzles and mysteries of an ordinary comfortable life. For me, one of those mysteries is the way that a book—an object wholly apart from my existence, until I bought it—can appear to be reading my mind, stealing my life. (I have this experience also when I am reading Rebecca Solnit.) Like Julavits’ whole chapter about Wasted: The Preppie Murder, by Linda Wolfe, and being three fucks away from Robert Chambers—not that I have ever been such a thing, but I have a thing about that book. Or about abortions as women’s work, about how the boyfriends are always informed but they’re never there—abortions are something that happen between friends. About the internet and desire, about conscious attempts to resist the google-ization of everything—which is interesting because there is at first glance something so bloggish about Julavits’ approach, and yet the construction of her entries is so counter to blogging’s immediacy. The Folded Clock is a bit of a throwback, a project decidedly analogue.

It works because the writing is wonderful: lines like, “Worrying about originality is like worrying about the best place to hang your wall phone.” Anecdotes that start with, “Once I stole the name of a fetus.” How could you not want to read the rest? And while her prose style isn’t Didion’s, Julavits has that writer’s ability to lay down a thread and appear to be following it, while she is in fact blazing an altogether different trail. Connections, symbioses, and coincidence—all interwoven, meaningful and nothing by the by. And always, unfailingly, interesting. The question of whether male writers ever consider female writers a threat. The nature of relationships. Some of these entries made me uncomfortable, sometimes because I couldn’t identify, and other times because I could. And any diary worth its salt should garner such a response.

I loved this weird wonderful beautiful book, a book that was also easy to read in little bits—important when I was caring for my children without a break last week. A book I knew I needed before I needed it, and there is something otherworldly about the whole thing. Or perhaps I mean the opposite, that the book—with its preoccupation with objects and thingness and remarkable beauty as a thing itself—is eerily all too wordly—but then its not, it’s so rarefied, no matter how much it seems to have busted out of a head, out of the earth.

But still, it’s the kind of object one wants to go around clutching. Last week I wrote down directions to my friend’s house on a yellow post-it note that I promptly lost, mysteriously—which is another of Julavits’ preoccupations, the way that an object can dematerialize. When I found the post-it note again yesterday between the end pages and the back cover, I was not at all surprised. And I left it there. I will discover it again the next time I read the book, and of course I will remember.

February 10, 2013

Flip Turn by Paula Eisenstein

flip-turnFlip Turn, the debut novel by Paula Eisenstein, is a wonderful companion to Leanne Shapton’s memoir Swimming Studies, using fiction to address many of the questions Shapton posed in her book. What does it it mean to be defined in one’s youth by a competitive sport? How can you be yourself without the sport? Does having natural talent hinder one from trying anything that doesn’t come easy? And where does the discipline of competitive athletics come from? Where does it go when the sport is gone? Eisenstein too delves into the peculiar culture of competitive swimming, the smell of chlorine, greeny blond hair, how you should not in fact stow your wet suit in a plastic bag after morning practice but rather roll it in your towel, otherwise it will still be wet for practice later in the later and therefore impossible to put on.

For Eisenstein’s unnamed narrator, competitive swimming offers welcome escape from a horrifying incident in her family’s past. Her older brother had been convicted of murdering a young girl at the local YMCA in their hometown of London ON, and the family cannot help being defined by that event both among themselves and in the wider community. The protagonist of Flip Turn views her swimming successes as a chance to tell a different story about their family life, to change the narrative. If she is good, then her family is good, she figures, which is a heavy burden for a young girl to carry on her shoulders no matter how muscular those shoulders are.

In the pool is the one place where she belongs, where both her mind and her body know exactly what she needs to do in order to be successful. Whereas, at school and even among her teammates, she’s not comfortable in her skin, always feeling like an outsider, partly due to her brother’s infamy or at least her consciousness of it, and also due to the fact that to be teenaged is always to feel like something of a misfit. Home is no better–she is all too aware of the fractures in her family, tip-toeing around her parents in order to be everything her brother wasn’t. Though she has to be careful not to be too successful in her sport–every time her name appears in the local newspaper, she knows that with her surname she only serves as a reminder of the terrible thing her brother had done years before.

Eisenstein’s narrative is told in fragments, which is disconcerting at first but the reader becomes accustomed to the style. This fragmented approach makes sense as well because this character’s world is one that is very much broken, and also because any young person is only figuring out how to understand a world in pieces anyway. Flip Turn has no obvious narrative arc–the trajectory is less of an arc than lengths back and forth across a pool–except that as the story progresses, the narrator’s voice and focus changes, deepens, demonstrating that this character is indeed maturing and that her awareness of the world around her is broadening.

This broadened awareness, however, fails to lead our character to any tidy resolution and, if anything, actually makes her experiences more complicated. Which is pretty much how life works, but it also means that this novel’s abrupt ending isn’t going to satisfy everyone. Though I imagine that anyone who gets into Flip Turn isn’t going to approach its ending expecting anything vaguely book-shaped anyway. What we get here is a portrayal of consciousness instead, a singular voice infused with such tenacity that the reader is left suspecting (or perhaps just hoping?) that this is a character who someday really is going to be okay.

December 16, 2012

Pickle Me This 2012 Books of the Year

As ever, it’s been a good year for books, and I’m only sorry that not everyone has yet been given the chance to fall in love with all the books that I loved best this year, but these are all books with good long shelf-lives and I know you will be happy to encounter any of these whenever you happen to do so. Just make sure you do.

here-we-are-among-the-livingHere We Are Among the Living by Samantha Bernstein: I loved this memoir-in-emails, this wonderful Toronto book about coming of age in the shadow of 9/11 and the legacy of the Baby Boomers. From my review: It’s a book I emailed my friends about, my friends who were sitting around a booth with me at a College Street diner on the night of September 11 2001, and I told them, “This is our story.”

mad-hopeMad Hope by Heather Birrell: Heather is my friend, but I have no compunction about including her book on my list with some objectivity because I really had no idea of the depths of her brilliance until until I read it. It’s a beautiful, rich, meticulously-curated short story collection, and it’s turning up on year-end best-of lists all over for good reason. Mad Hope is excellent.

book-of-marvelsThe Book of Marvels by Lorna Crozier: This is the book I kept talking to strangers about on busses, reading them the line about forks: “It’s the only kitchen noun, turned adjective, attached to lightning.” From my review: …one of the few books I’ve ever encountered that dazzles you when its dust jacket falls off: the book is argyle. Its design is splendid, and the contents will not disappoint, guaranteed to appeal to anyone who loves words, and stories, and the thingy-ness of things.

arcaduaArcadia by Lauren Groff: Groff is my favourite American writer, with so much more substance than hype about her, and in her second novel Arcadia, she just keeps getting better. From my review: Lauren Groff is a rule-breaker, a boundary-pusher, a genre-blurrer. There’s nobody else quite like like her writing right now, and she writes on the shoulders of those who came before her… She also writes with a deep appreciation and awe for history, for the role of story within history, and for the epic. Her first novel had a larger-than-lifeness about it, which is not so unusual for a book a writer has been working her life for, but it’s less usual for a second novel and for it to be pulled off so successfully too.

the-forrestsThe Forrests by Emily Perkins: One of a number of brilliant books this year that we haven’t heard nearly enough about. From my review: The Forrests is like The Stone Diaries, but edgier, and structured as the interior of its subject’s mind rather than her scrapbooks, and it’s enormously successful. Rachel Cusk, Virginia Woolf. Vividly human characters, gorgeous writing. It’s full of surprises, twists, turns and moments of illumination, quiet but profound in its brilliance, and devastating to have to finally put down.

swimming-studiesSwimming Studies by Leanne Shapton: Oh, sweet summer time and this gorgeous book I bought one sweltering day on a walk home from the swimming pool. From my review: Swimming Studies is a difficult book to explain, and I’m glad that I get to review it in my blog so that I don’t necessarily have to. That I can simply say that the whole thing just works, for no reason I can really fathom. Leanne Shapton writes about ponds and pools she has known– the Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond, the pool at the Chateau Laurier, the baths in Bath, and so many others. She writes about morning practice: “Ever present is the smell of chlorine, and the drifting of snow in the dark.” A many-page spread displays her extensive bathing suit collection. She includes drawings of her teenage swim teammates, with brief biographies for each: “I’m not crazy about Stacy since noticing that she copied onto her own shoes the piano keys I drew on the inside of my sneakers.”

malarky-190x300Malarky by Anakana Schofield: According to everybody that matters, this was one of the best books of the year, and when it comes out in the UK next year, the whole world is going to know it. From my review: If Hagar Shipley met Stella Gibbons, the end result might be Anakana Schofield’s Malarky, but then again, it probably wouldn’t be, because Malarky refuses to be what you think it is. And moreover, it probably wouldn’t be because the book is meant to be chock-a-block with allusions to James Joyce and Thomas Hardy. Don’t tell anybody, but I still haven’t read Ulysses (and hence the Gibbons instead of the primary sources), but I have read Malarky, and it was brilliant, which I know for certain even with the burden of my literary ignorance. And that I can pronounce a book as wonderful even whilst unable to access its higher planes of greatness is certainly saying something for the book itself, which is mostly, “You’ll like it too.”

the-blondesThe Blondes by Emily Schultz: I devoured this book in a weekend, and as soon as I was finished it, I started to read it again. From my review: Hazel’s few friendships and alliances with women are shattered as individuals try to navigate their respective ways to safety… But Hazel ultimately finds herself entirely powerless to her biological destiny and to patriarchal tyranny when the plague and its circumstances make impossible her choice to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. Schultz shows how change creeps in little by little so that to a feminist academic, lack of access to abortion can become almost remarkable. The Blondes is powerful and solid, gripping and scary.

juliet-storiesThe Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder: A wonderful book, and the world thought so too because The Juliet Stories was nominated for a Governor General’s Award this year. I called it “one of the best Canadian books you’re going to read this year,” and as the year draws to a close, I’m standing by that declaration.

afflictions-and-departuresAfflictions and Departures by Madeline Sonik: The best part of my life is that I got to spend this year coming up with excuses to put this fantastic book’s cover on the main page of 49thShelf. Winner of the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize and shortlisted for the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction. From my review: Sonik stitches her personal stories to the fabric of her time. Her narrative voice is blessed with startling omniscience, with the benefit of hindsight, and with an acute awareness of both how the extraordinary can be illuminated by ordinary detail, and also of how the ordinary and extraordinary are so often intricately connected. Sonik’s prose reveals her poet’s skill, as does these essays’ use of imagery and symbolism, but the broadness of her vision and the deftness with which she fits together surprising pieces of reality is evocative of Joan Didion’s masterful non-fiction.

A-Large-HarmoniumA Large Harmonium by Sue Sorensen: This book came out last year, but I only discovered it in June, and I’ve been recommending it steadily ever since to readers who have not been disappointed. From my review: Winnipeg resident Sorensen has much in common with Carol Shields, who was another, except that her tone is darker and more overtly hilarious. The novel’s pace is brisk and easy, which is not to say “light”, because there is depth here, but the story goes down just as well. Just as Shields did, Sorensen’s got a grasp on joy and how it factors amidst life’s absurdities. This is a wonderful novel with broad appeal. It’s absolutely the funniest and one of the best books I’ve read in ages.

December 10, 2012

Christmas Reads: Comfort and Joy by India Knight

I received this book for Christmas two years ago, the hardcover version, which is important to note because it features this gorgeous cover by Leanne Shapton. In a photo from that Christmas 2010, I am curled up on the couch with this novel and enormous glass of beer, which is pretty much an ideal way to spend any day. I reread Comfort and Joy this past weekend sans beer but with just as much pleasure. How nice to have a Christmas book for the adult set, and how nice too that the book stands up to a second time around.

It’s peculiarly structured, the continuing story of Clara Hutt who first appeared in Knight’s novel My Life on a Plate. Comfort and Joy takes place over the Christmases of 2009-2011, illustrating the pressure Clara feels each year to provide a perfect Christmas for her fractured family. The family becomes more fractured as the years go on–Clara’s second marriage ends, she worries about how it’s affecting her children. All the while she’s accommodating her eccentric extended family, several wacky friends, ex-husbands, and in-laws to create a 21st century perfect family Christmas. Not perfect as in magazine perfect–here there is no such veneer, and the table conversation is always unfailingly hilarious, however slightly offensive. Clara doesn’t mind being offensive, but she just wants everybody to have a good time, to feel a sense of belonging she herself missed growing up.

Comfort and Joy is light, smart and funny, and sure to delight anyone who’s enjoyed Knight’s other novels or her newspaper columns. A treasured volume in my Christmas library.

October 30, 2012

Hatchback

Where have I been? Nowhere, actually, except consumed by projects and daily life, plus we’re giving up napping at our house, which is cutting into my reading time. And so the past few days, I’ve been reading instead of blogging when I had the chance– the wonderful Elizabeth Stories, which I can’t wait to write about here. Had a wonderful night out with Stuart on the weekend, with dinner and Ira Glass at Massey Hall! Halloween has also become a full-time preoccupation–we’ve had three parties so far, and it’s not even Halloween yet. I’m also getting ready for the Wild Writers Festival this weekend, where at my session I will advise writers not to write blog posts in which they apologize for not blogging. So I’m kind of breaking my own rule now, but then consistency has never been my strong point, and I’m not apologizing either. Also, I can’t believe I haven’t told you about the eventful IFOA night I attended last week (I am the anonymous woman calling out angrily), with the marvellous Anakana Schofield (who came over for breakfast on Saturday) and that I met Leanne Shapton!!!, which went much smoother than the time I met Joan Didion. Thank goodness.

January 14, 2012

Rambling among the trees

“The purpose of this bulletin is to make it easier for people to become personally acquainted with our trees. It is believed that the securing of the interest of the people of the province in trees will be an aid toward an understanding of the importance to us of our forests, and thus pave the way for support of forestry principles.” –J.H. White, Toronto 1925

Which is from the preface to The Forest Trees of Ontario (1957 edition) which I found last winter in a cardboard box on Major Street and took home even though it smells like a basement. I love this book, though I confess I don’t know a papaw from a sassafras.

“When I’m in Toronto, I always drop in at the Monkey’s Paw Bookstore. Stephen Fowler, the owner, has an incredible eye. (I recently came back with a book of transcribed seance sessions, a history of women in uniform, a treatise on baking, and a book of party games for adults.) He had this book called the Native Trees of Canada displayed on a table. I flipped through it, and I immediately knew I needed to buy it. It was a government volume: unmediated and strictly informational. It was filled with very sterile, black and white pictures of leaves, placed on a grid for scale. While looking at them, I had vivid memories of picking at maple seeds on my front lawn, of wet leaves stuck to my shoes, of fallen leaves blowing through the screen door. I knew I wanted to paint them. “– Leanne Shapton, “The Native Trees of Canada”, Paris Review Blog, November 2010

Leanne’s Shapton’s book of paintings is Native Trees of Canada and it’s beautiful. And if there are two of us out there appreciating these old government-issued volumes, there are bound to be more. Which gives me faith in the world, actually, in readers and books, and the trees whose lives were given so that we can read pages. (Even old ones that smell like basements.)

Also, I have also discovered that the maple in our backyard is a black maple.

(See also my Tree Books list at Canadian Bookshelf, whose compilation brought Shapton’s book to my attention in the first place.)

“It is hoped that the bulletin will combine instruction with recreation for all who care to go rambling among the trees.” –J.H. White

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