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Pickle Me This

November 27, 2009

Pym Up A Ladder

As I’ve written already, I’m having a terrible time finding Barbara Pym novels, and it seems I just have to wait for her fans to die because there’s no other way they’re going to let her go. I sort of fancied just walking into any old used bookshop and buying up her library for a dollar or two, but alas, no dice.

This is bothersome because I fell in love with Pym just a few weeks back (via Excellent Women), and then Maureen Corrigan kept going on about her, and now DoveGreyReader has just posted a marvelous ode. In which she notes Pym’s A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, which is available at Ten Editions Bookstore, at the end of my street, no less.

So I had no excuse not to go and fetch it, and why not the Pym novel No Fond Return of Love while I was at it? It was a hardcover, in excellent condition and with a gorgeous dust jacket (that put me in mind of Persephone Books) and not too expensive. So that’s done, and it’s fine, because I’ve shown excellent book buying restaint this past month. Except A Child’s Christmas in Wales that I bought yesterday, but that doesn’t count, because it’s illustrated with woodcuts by Ellen Raskin and she wrote The Westing Game.

The very best part of all of this is not my purchases themselves, however, or even my supposed restraint, but that the books I bought today were to be found high up a ladder. The kind that slides along the shelf of course, and I sought permission before I felt free to climb it. Permission granted, and I’ve never found a book in such a fashion in my bookbuying life. Such a monumental moment, to be commemorated with a photograph of course. The whole thing was very exciting.

March 13, 2018

More Fun at English Bookshops

That we only visited three bookshops seems a bit paltry, although a little less so when you consider we were only in England for six days. My only regret is that this time we didn’t get to visit a bookshop on a boat where we were fed Victoria Sponge Cake, but perhaps that can only happen so often in a lifetime. Our trip to England was a little more local this time, focussed on Lancaster where we’d rented a house for a week. A house that came with a wall full of books, which seemed like a good omen—”But don’t let this make you think we don’t have to go to all the bookshops,” I reminded everybody.

We’d actually visited our first bookshop before we even got to England, because I like the idea of travelling to England with no books, instead picking them up on my travels. Which is pretty risky, actually, considering the decimation of book selection at the Pearson International Airport where there are no longer actual bookshops, and instead a small display of books on display alongside bottles of Tylenol and electrical volt adapters. But I found a couple of titles that interested me, ultimately deciding on Anatomy of a Scandal, by Sarah Vaughan, the story of a political wife whose life comes apart when her husband is accused of rape. A timely book, and it was interesting, but spoiled for me by a “twist” that made this very fathomable story a little bit less so. Which meant that I was all too ready to buy another book at our first English bookshop, Waterstones in Lancaster.

I love the Waterstones in Lancaster. My heart belongs to indie bookshops, but Waterstones is better than your average bookshop chain, and the Lancaster Waterstones in particular, which its gorgeous storefront that stretches along a city block. With big windows, great displays, little nooks and crannies and staircases leading to more places to explore. It’s a gorgeous store, with great kids’ displays too, and my children were immediately occupied by reading and also by a variety of small plush octopuses. I ended up getting Susan Hill’s Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, a follow-up to Howards End is on the Landing, which I bought when we were in England in 2009 and Harriet was a baby and I spent our week there reading it while she napped on my chest. Jacob’s Room… would turn out not to be as good as Howards End…, which broadened my literary world so much (and introduced me to Barbara Pym!). The new bookwas kind of rambling and disconnected and not enough about books, but was so inherently English that I was happy with it.

On the Wednesday we drove across the Pennines to Ilkley to visit The Grove Bookshop, which is one of my favourite bookshops ever. It’s located up the street from Betty’s Tea Room, which makes for one of the best neighbourhoods I’ve ever hung out in. After afternoon tea, where the children behaved impeccably, we took them to a toyshop for a small present as reward, which was good incentive for their behaviour in The Grove Bookshop too, where I was able to browse for as long as I liked. I love it there, the perfect bookshops and well worth a trip halfway across the world. I had been in the mood for a Muriel Spark novel since reading this wonderful article, and The Grove Bookshop delivered with The Ballad of Peckham Rye, a new edition in honour of Spark’s centenaryI was also very happy to find a rare copy of Adrian Mole: The Collected Poems, as Mole’s work has had a huge impact in my own development as an author and intellectual.

I really loved The Ballad of Peckham Rye, so weird and contemporary in its tone, strange and meta, the way all Spark’s work is. When we’re on vacation, I don’t like getting out of bed, lingering instead with a cup of tea and toast crumbs, and Peckham Rye was perfect for that,

On Friday we went to Storytellers Inc, located in Lytham-St. Anne’s, just south of Blackpool. Originally a children’s bookshop, they’ve branched out to books for readers of all ages, although the children’s focus remains—they have a huge selection of kids’ books and a special kids-only reading room with a tiny door and kid-sized furniture. (Sadly, we’d not brought our kids along with us that afternoon and it would have been weird to go in there without them.) In addition to the kids’ books, they had lots of Canadian fiction, and poetry. We ended up buying Welcome to Lagos, by Chibundu Onuzo, just because we liked the cover. And also Motherhood, by Helen Simpson, because I’d seen it on the shop Instagram page, and then I saw that Emily was reading it.

I don’t think I’ve ever read Simpson before, but this is a mini-collection of her stories from a few different books over the decades—and I loved it. Plus there was a boob on the cover. I finished reading it on the plane journey home, and then started Welcome to Lagos, which was really great. It’s Onuzo’s second novel, after the award-winning The Spider King’s Daughter. The latest is about a ragtag crew who arrives in Lagos and attempts to make a life there, in spite of the odds. They end up running in with a corrupt former Minister of Education with a suitcase full of money, and what they choose to do with this fate will make or break their destinies. In this case, choosing to buy a book for it’s cover was a very good decision.

October 17, 2017

A far cry from Mr. Stillingfleet’s stuff

I’ve never been to the Victoria College Book Sale on opening day before, because it’s always on a Thursday and you have to pay $5 to get in, but I hadn’t planned my life well during the weekend the sale was happening last month, and my only chance to go at all would be during the ninety minutes between when the sale kicked off at 2pm and when I had to pick my children up from school at 3:30. So I cobbled together the admission fee, literally out of dimes and nickels from a jar in my kitchen, which made for very heavy pockets, but I got there, and learned of just one distinction between the Victoria College Book Sale on its first day and all the days thereafter: there are Barbara Pym books for sale.

It’s difficult to find used copies of Barbara Pym novels. Her readership was never huge enough, at least not in Canada, as compared to writers like Margaret Drabble, Hilary Mantel and Penelope Lively, whose novels are mainstays at secondhand bookstores (which is the way that I fell in love with all of these writers, and others). I like to think, however, that it’s not just that Pym’s readers are few and far between, but that they’re also quite devoted. The secondhand copies of Barbara Pym novels that I do have came from a house contents sale in my neighbourhood after the death of its elderly owner (which in itself is kind of Pymmish), and that’s the only way I’ll ever be getting rid of Barbara Pym books, by which I mean: over my head body. (I imagine they’re easier to find in secondhand bookshops in England; also, many of her works have brought back into print by Virago Modern Classics with fun cartoonish covers in the last ten years and I’m sure those copies are turning up in charity shops).

Anyway, finding Barbara Pym novels at the Vic Book Sale was exciting enough, but even more remarkable was finding one I hadn’t read yet. I thought I’d read them all, including a collection of her letters and another of unpublished short fiction, and the first book she ever wrote, Crampton Hodnet, which wasn’t published until after her death. I thought I’d spanned the entirety of the Pymosphere, and was content to spend the rest of my life then just rereading her, at least once a summer and maybe even more so, but then there was An Academic Question. I’d missed it altogether. Also published after her death, written during her wilderness years in the early 1970s (before she was “rediscovered” and brought back into print, winning the Booker Prize in 1977 and publishing two more books before her death in 1980).

I started reading An Academic Question on Friday night because I’d been reading A Few Green Leaves (the official newsletter of the Barbara Pym Society) in the bathroom (as you do) and then checked my email to find a reminder that I hadn’t yet renewed my Pym Society membership for 2017. I did so, and took note of the universe conspiring to send me in a Barbara Pym direction, and I’ve already got a backlog of books I have to write about anyway so this would be an excellent opportunity to read for fun and not have to write about it at all.

Take note: I am writing about it. Barbara Pym never fails to incite…

The novel starts off a little roughly. In her note on the text, Hazel Holt writes that it’s cobbled together from two drafts, one in first person and the other in third. Before the book’s spell had taken hold, I kept getting caught on clunky prose and repeated words..but then at some point these problems ceased or else I stopped noticing them. As per Holt’s note, Pym wrote to Philip Larkin of the novel in June 1971: “It was supposed to be a sort of Margaret Drabble effort but of course it hasn’t turned out like that at all.” Which interested me—I remember reading about Pym’s relationship to Drabble’s work in the years when Pym herself wasn’t being published, deemed irrelevant while Drabble herself was very fashionable, her antithesis.

You can see what Pym was up to here—this is a story of a young faculty wife whose sister has had an abortion and lives in London with a man who designs the sets for the news program her husband’s colleagues appear on, all the while the students at the university are going through a period of unrest. In a superficial way, this is Drabble’s milieu—but Pym can’t help but spin it in her own way. It’s the interiority of her protagonist, her doubts and questions, her sense of humour. Caroline is undeniably Pymmish in her preoccupations, spending most of her time with her gay best friend Coco who dotes on his high maintenance mother. While Drabble’s characters are all on the verge of slitting their wrists in a bathtub, Caroline is unfailingly stoic, even at a remove:

‘What was the point of it all?’ Kitty had asked me plaintively, and I felt that for her the evening had been a disappointment, as indeed so many evenings must be now. And what had been the point, really? A few gentle cultured people trying to stand up against the tide of mediocrity that was threatening to swamp them? I who had hardly known anything different could sympathize with their views but for myself I didn’t really listen to the radio; I went about my household tasks, such as they were, absorbed by my own broody thoughts.

And while this is one of Pym’s rare novels that doesn’t contain a single curate, let alone a mention of The Church Times, has only handful of references to jumble sales and the characters drink coffee instead of tea (I KNOW!), the humour is still wryly, undeniably Pymmish. The following passage would never be found in a Margaret Drabble novel:

We sat drinking cups of instant coffee and smoking, commiserating with each other. An unfaithful husband and a dead hedgehog—sorrows not to be compared, you might say, on a different plane altogether. Yet there was hope that Alan would turn to me again  while the hedgehog could never come back.

The book wouldn’t work, Pym felt, according to Holt, for its cosiness, and it was remarkable how often the word “cosy” appears in the text (alone with the word “detached”). Which got me thinking about the literary implications of cosiness, as opposed to grittiness, I suppose. Thinking of cosy made me think of rooms, of comfortable sofas, piles of books on the table, interesting items on the mantel—all of which are things that furnish Pym’s books, including this one. Cosy isn’t fashionable, it’s true, what what it is  instead is timeless, which might be why we’re reading Pym today while Margaret Drabble’s early novels seem so dated and are out print.

Pym’s Caroline is detached from her life as faculty wife—her husband has proved to be less interesting that she thought he might be, he’s been unfaithful, and she finds herself at a loss as to how support him in his work as one expects she should. She finds motherhood a bit boring and her daughter is cared for by the Swedish au pair anyway. Apart from her friendship with Coco, Caroline doesn’t have anyone to have real conversations with, and when she does talk to Coco, he has no qualms about finding her provincial life kind of tiresome. She spends some time reading to Mr. Stillingfleet, a retired professor at an old people’s home, revealing to her husband that the professor keeps a box of academic papers by his bedside…which ignites her husband’s interest in visiting the frail old man, so he can scoop material from the box and pull an academic coup over his superior. And then Caroline is left with the ethical question of what to do with the stolen paper afterwards, and just where her loyalties lie, and what compromises indeed she is willing to make in the name of her husband’s success…

“‘Hospital romances,’ I said to Dolly that evening when she called around to see us. ‘That’s what I’m reading now. It’s a far cry from Mr. Stillingfleet’s stuff.”

‘Maybe, but it is all life,’ said Dolly in her firmest tone, ‘and no aspect of life is to be despised.”

July 25, 2017

The Ravines of Smeared Disarray

“English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things.”

Last week I got tired of narratives that were all too predictable, and so I decided to pick up Pond again, the little book with the gorgeous cover that has been shelved on my staircase since last August. My staircase is book limbo, the books that aren’t to be either shelved or given away. They’re the books I haven’t quite finished with yet, although there is a chance they could linger in unfinishedness in perpetuity. I bought Pond last summer after reading A.N. Devers’ review in which she makes connections from Woolf to Walden, and decrees the narrative as “muddy”:

“Muddiness is not typically a positive description for a narrative, but this mud is sparkling, full of mica and minerals that glitter with color when the sun’s rays hit. It’s through this glistening mud that Bennett’s readers get to mudlark, mucking about in prose that is alternatively deliberate and crisp, surrealistic and unknowable, to find real gems of observation and language.”

I recall that I liked the book well enough, but couldn’t remember any more about it. It hadn’t satisfied me. If it weren’t for the absolutely brilliant cover, to be honest, I might not have even read it all, let alone read it again. (The UK cover was completely unremarkable, not a bit of mica or mineral. It was also marketed as a short story collection there, but as a novel upon its US publication, which is interesting to consider, and also how different the two books must be regarded by different readers as a result of these things.) Anyway, I picked it up again, finally, and was quite delighted to discover inside a postcard I sent myself last summer, which seems sort of fitting with the book’s interiority, and then I got to use the postcard as a bookmark.

The book is curious and amusing, domestic minutia. Disorienting—nobody draws us a map here. The narrator lives in an old cottage on an estate near the coast of Ireland and in one of the stories a neighbour is having a wedding, for which the narrator gives them bunting. And that the narrator owns bunting at all seems kind of incongruous from what we know of her—when does she string her bunting ever—but she’s not telling us everything. In fact, it’s the telling she takes offence to. She is bothered by a sign that’s been put up beside the pond on the property, purportedly to stop children from toppling into it. A sign reading, unsurprisingly, POND: “As if the Earth were a colossal and elaborate deathtrap. How will I ever make myself at home here if there are always these meddlesome scaremongering signs everywhere I go.”

All of which is to say that nothing is labelled in Pond, and everything is mutable, in particular the line between indoors and out, home and away. It’s an uncanny narrative. The lines between then and now are blurry too, in this place so steeped in history, tiresomely so. The thatchers come to do the roofs, and everyone is very excited, but the narrator finds these workers offensive and disturbing. They bother her view. “A leaf came in through the window and dropped directly in the water between my knees as I sat in the bath looking out.”

So yes, I was thinking of Walden and Woolf, and the person who did Thoreau’s laundry, of course. But in the chapter titled “Control Knobs,” I started thinking about Barbara Pym. And about this is a book that contains all my favourite things, actually—jam and bunting—but in a kaleidoscopic fashion. The familiar made unfamiliar, of course, but still, one is home, in a readerly sense. The chapter is decidedly Pymmish in its fixation on ordinary details—the objects assembled in bowls on a window sill, for example, and how light shines through a jar—that are standing in for something deeper, darker and more resonant. Bennett writes, “There are a number of regions in any abode that are foremost yet unreachable. Places, in other words, right under your nose, which are routinely inundated with crumbs and smidgens and remains. And ill-suited specks and veils and hairpins stay still and conspire in a way that is unpleasant to consider, and so one largely attempts to arrange one’s awareness upon the immediate surfaces always and not let it drop into the ravines of smeared disarray everywhere between things….”

This is the chapter where the narrator is referring to the knobs on her stove, which is not a proper stove, but a kind of hotplate one finds in a bedsit, “the two-ring ovens [that] are synonymous with bedsits… One thinks of unmarried people right away, bereft secretaries and threadbare caretakers, and of ironing boards with scorched striped covers standing next to the airing-cupboard door at the end of the hallway.” And then she takes it darker, suggesting that part of its design as an implement for people who live alone in small spaces isn’t just about space considerations, but that one couldn’t kill oneself with such a device, if it came to that. “I certainly couldn’t get my head into my cooker without getting a lot of grease on the underside of my chin for example—and it stinks in there.” Even suicide—as are most things for this narrator—is a matter of practicality.

Strange as though her point of view might be, Pond’s narrator is a sensible woman, preoccupied by compost, which she is meant to empty often, but there isn’t time for that, and so it piles up. She is aware of decay is what I meant, (and of course there is the leaf through the window—this idyl is not perpetual spring),  and the bowl gets empties, or else it doesn’t. She refuses to be pinned down. As might be the case in a novel that used to be a collection of short stories, this narrator contains multitudes. “The postbox gets damp, you see, causing letters or so to pucker and leak, so occasionally I am quite diligent about emptying it and other times my mind is such that I just don’t care enough about what happens to other people’s post.” (Do you love that???)

This woman is alone, and unabashed about being not understood, but she is all right. She is nutty, but she had friends, and parties, and lovers. People stop by and sit on her step for a chat, and she has a pot of parsley growing in soil there, though don’t take that to mean she has a propensity for growing things—she bought it sprouted from a nearby supermarket where it was packed in a plastic carton. She isn’t lonely. She has free time, it seems, but “there are always things that must be done.” Check the postbox, sweep the dust out—because the outside keeps on coming in. And she has one of those doors that open in half, after all, so this is inevitable. The home is not apart from the world, but part of it, and therefore the things we do to care for our homes is work of the world as well. The things you could write about a kitchen hearth are as profound as thoughts about a (Walden) POND just say. It makes me think about doorsteps, and thresholds, and the liminal, and sublime.

Strange and surreal too. I’m still not done with it. I’m feeling like Pond might be going back on the stairs, for another day down the road when I want to read a postcard to myself and to have the ordinary and obvious quite complicated. Like housework, it’s a task that will never be finished, a work-in-progress, the stuff of life.

July 24, 2017

Lost Umbrella Empathy

Avid readers here at Pickle Me This will remember that I’ve been keeping track of lost umbrellas in literature for some time now, whose authors have included EM Forster, Virginia Woolf, Cordelia Strube, Barbara Pym, and more. I think the sign I saw in a park yesterday counts as literature, don’t you? Particularly the line, “The umbrella is meaningful to me.” I know all about it; I’ve had many a meaningful umbrella in my time. Clearly I’m not the only one, as the sign’s response makes clear. Umbrella empathy, it seems, is endemic. Oh, I do hope her umbrella will be all right…

June 20, 2017

On the Bearability of Lightness

A couple of weeks ago, after a string of one-after-the-other satisfying spring reads, I couldn’t get into a single book. A problem that stretched out for a week, until I had no choice but to turn to a surefire solution, which was to reread a Laurie Colwin novel followed by one by Barbara Pym. The Laurie Colwin idea occurring to me because I’d created a job for a character in the novel I’m writing that seemed Colwin-esque—she was hired as a researcher at an institute for folklore and fairy tales. Which never happens to anyone in real life, but which is all the more fun to imagine for it. In the Colwin novel I read, Happy All The Time, not a single character is in possession of a real job. The book is about two friends, one whose job is to manage the philanthropic foundation that donates his family’s wealth and the other has a background in urban studies and works for a city-planning think-tank, where he meets his future wife who is a linguist working on a language project. The first character’s wife is just wealthy and doesn’t have to work, and spends her day-to-day life watering spider plants in her apartment, making soup, and rearranging jars of pretty things on her windowsills.

Do I sound critical of these details? I don’t mean to. It’s part of the reason I life Laurie Colwin, the rarefied experiences of a certain class of people but she gets at their ordinariness. It is all very strange, and an aspect of appreciating Colwin, I think, is learning to take that strangeness for granted. Which is not to say her books are frivolous, although they are in a way. But I think maybe the problem is that we have no template except for frivolity to understand a book that possesses a light touch. This is a novel that turns gender norms upside down, Jane Austen with the shoes on other feets. The two men at the book’s centre are yearning and emotionally complicated, besotted with emotionally distant women who don’t seem the appeal of love in all its frippery. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff going on here, although it’s easy to breeze right by it, to let it go down easy. It’s easy to give this kind of literature absolutely no credit at all.

What if instead of axes to the frozen seas within us, books were umbrellas to protect us from the ice pellets overhead? Or a house that we could go inside in order to escape from the weather for a while.

I read Barbara Pym after that, because I love her, but my confession is this: apart from Excellent Women (which is so so excellent, but they all are) I have a hard time remembering what Barbara Pym novel is which and they all run together. Which is why I try to reread at least one annually, and this time it was No Fond Return of Love, which I last read in 2010 (which I know because I then recorded a youtube video about how much I loved it). As with the Colwin, this is a book that skews with conventional narrative and is more subversive than it ever gets credit for. Really, it’s a story about stories, about seeing and watching and it’s an experiment in a novel with a protagonist who is not a protagonist at all. Very little of Dulcie’s story is her own, and she doesn’t even want it to be. She is content in her experience, but it’s other people’s experiences that fascinates her, and we keep waiting for the conventional things to happen, but they don’t. Dulcie is far more interested in other people than she is in herself, and so is the novel, which is pretty unusual. I think I read this one around the same time I saw the Emma Thompson film Stranger Than Fiction and read the Muriel Spark novel The Comforters which is similar, and so the metafictional elements of this Barbara Pym book (and the ways in which Pym represents her work and makes a cameo appearance) are underlined to me. I can’t remember if other Pym books are quite as self-referential as this one, or if No Fond Return of Love is an outlier.

In this novel too, things are arranged in jars on windowsills and we’re told what these things are and how the light things through them, and I think of the materiality of both Colwin and Pym’s work, how the furniture is so important. And is there anything wrong with books that are more concerned with end-tables than axes? What if literature didn’t have to be a weapon?

I read Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk next, which I read first in January, but I wanted to read again before my book club discussed it. A book I was so glad to get a chance to return to because it reads so easily you might almost forget it, or at least imagine there is not so much to remember. This the trouble with lightness, of course, is its deceptiveness. Which is the entire point of Lillian Boxfish, actually, and we had such a fascinating discussion about this book, about style and substance, about the way in which its narrator cultivates her persona and how reliable is she, is she writing us another rhyme? This novel written by a poet is written with such an awareness of language, and sense of play about it, and Lillian Boxfish’s point about her heyday is that there could be an intelligence to lightness then, humour and grace. And it made me think about Colwin and Pym, writers whose lightness might be held against them, as Lillian’s work is against her later in her life, dismissed as silly rhymes. But is there a difference between these silly rhymes and today’s silly rhymes, and has a basic assumption of a reader’s intelligence and vocabulary and capacity for challenge changed in the years since Pym and Colwin were published. Remember too that for many years Pym wasn’t even published, out of print for nearly two decades until her resurrection in 1977—so maybe it’s the same as it ever was?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I’m glad that reading light this last little while has given me so much to think about. Thinking about those pretty things in the their jars on the windowsill and the narrow space between light, light (illumination) and delight, which has no etymological connection, but it probably should.

November 6, 2016

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett

the-mothersOf the many terrible consequences of abortion having been turned into an “issue”—a binary issue at that, a “debate”—is that the narratives have lost their meat. So caught up in the rhetoric, women become uncomfortable with the nuanced reality of the situation. And instead one is either for or against, pro or anti. Abortion is good or evil, a life-saver or murder. And what gets lost in all this opposition are the stories. That abortion is not an issue, but that it’s a fact of so many women’s lives, and it exists on a spectrum with a million degrees of experience.

In The Mothers, the debut novel by Brit Bennett—which has received all kinds of buzz and which I finally bought after hearing it praised over and over again, and I’m so glad I did—those experiences are explored over a half decade in the lives of three young people connected to an African-American church community in a coastal California town. Although it might be more accurate to say say that two of the three are disconnected— Nadia Turner’s mother had been a devout churchgoer, but she’d killed herself six months before Nadia gets herself knocked up by Luke, the wayward son of the preacher. There’s never a doubt in Nadia’s mind about what she must do—she’s got a scholarship to the University of Michigan, and this is her ticket out of a life as narrow and confining as her mother’s was, and she doesn’t want to relive her mother’s mistakes, who had Nadia when she was just 17. And so Nadia gets an abortion, setting herself back upon the path that she’d envisioned for herself. Though there is still a summer to get through before she can finally get away, and she’s forced into taking a job as the assistant to Luke’s mother. Spending more time at the church than she ever had before, she develops a friendship with Aubrey, a girl her age who joined the church after being rejected by her own mother (and fleeing abuse from her mother’s boyfriend). Both girls motherless then, and Nadia has rejected motherhood, and every chapter begins with a chorus of voices, “the mothers” from the church, women whom Barbara Pym would have termed as “excellent.” Unbeknownst to both girls, they are being watched over.

With sweeping narrative maneuvering, Bennett conducts this cast of people through years and great changes in their own lives. We see Nadia moving away and excelling in all the ways that had been imagined for her, and how she cannot manage to escape the decision she made to end her pregnancy, how she carries the experience with her. And how too it dwells within Luke, who fails to support Nadia properly, but then theirs had never been a proper relationship anyway, and as his life remains at a standstill, Nadia’s abortion comes to stand in for all the opportunities he has lost and a source of his pain. And for Aubrey too who becomes close to Luke and has her own pain that needs healing.

Bennett nicely situates the personal against the political, Nadia’s experience with anti-abortion politicking by church members (although not so avidly—these are reasonable people) and also about how one’s convictions become flexible when an unwanted pregnancy is a fact instead of an idea. She shows how a woman can choose an abortion and know it’s the right choice, but still mourn what she’s lost and wonder at the could-have-beens. That an abortion, like a lot of things that happen to people over the course of their lives, is a complicated, multi-faceted thing.

The Mothers was born out of Brit Bennett’s MFA thesis at the University of Michigan, and there were some edges of the narrative that whispered (but didn’t scream) to me: first book. Not in the usual sense—the story is substantial, developed, and written with deep empathy and understanding of the experiences of its characters. This book is solid. But I could also see how this is the work of a writer at the start of her career—some of the set-ups were familiar, the kind of thing that you read in a lot of first books, a seam or two visible. But that this could be both conspicuously a first book and be as ambitious as it is, and not only be reaching but be exceeding its grasp? How incredible is that?

The Mothers is an outstanding achievement, one of the best books I’ve read this year, the kind of book that leaves its reader waiting for whatever its author has coming up next.

(And in the meantime, read her essay, “I don’t know what to do with good white people.”)

September 25, 2016

My Literary History, via the Victoria College Book Sale


I must have gone to the Victoria College Book Sale when I was student there (and when I worked at the Victoria College Library, which the book sale supports) but I don’t really remember it. My appetite for books then was more theoretical than practiced, and I didn’t yet have tastes of my own. When pressed, I would have told you that I admired Margaret Atwood, but looking back, I don’t think I had any idea what she was up to in her work. I was still reading the books I thought I was supposed to be reading back then, buying battered paperbacks with familiar names—Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence. They were always men. It makes total sense now that I didn’t have very much fun reading these books, or even remember them. I recall reading The Years, by Virginia Woolf in my undergraduate years, and finding it all very difficult to decipher. I remember reading it again in the months before I went to graduate school, and being able to make sense of it, and being oh so relieved—perhaps I was finally getting smarter.

It was in the years I was out of school that I finally figured out who I was as a reader. Living in England helped, with its omnipresent literary culture, but after that I lived in Japan, and that helped too. To go from being overwhelmed by print culture to being functionally illiterate was amazing, and having so few books available to me—we read whatever we could get our hands on. I don’t know that there has ever been a more important bookshop for me ever than Wantage Books in Kobe, where I first found Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way, and also Carol Shields Various Miracles. It occurs to me that as a reader and I writer, I was actually born there.

I returned to Toronto in 2005, to attend graduate school at the University of Toronto, and I returned also to my job at the EJ Pratt Library. We were so poor then, as I attended school, and Stuart waiting for his permanent residency, without which he was unable to work. When I went to the Victoria College Book Sale in 2005, I remember knowing I probably shouldn’t. We didn’t have the money for it. And me being who I am, and books being what they are, I ended up spending $14 (—this was the half-price Monday, I think) which was a terrific indulgence and one I appreciated so much. I wrote about it here, and reading that list now, these are all books that meant a great deal to me—Penelope Lively and Hilary Mantel (pre-Wolf Hall!). Over the next few years, I would buy everything from Margaret Drabble’s back catalogue at the Victoria College book sale, which fundamentally has been my gateway to major (mostly British) women writers. Laurie Colwin too, and Muriel Spark, Jane Gardam, Anita Brookner and Doris Lessing

2006 was the year I bought Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, which my friend Kim handed to me saying, “You’ve got to read this,” wholly unaware that the blurb on the back by Amy Tan said precisely that this was the type of books that drives one to do such things. I was no longer poor by 2007, so bought about 20 books. In 2008, I purchased an actual tower—with Penelopes Fitzgerald, Lively and Farmer.

By 2009, I realized I’d bought all the books available at Half Price Monday and would have to up the stakes a bit. It was also the first year I went with a baby and the year I bought my first Barbara Pym—Excellent Women. In 2010, I left my baby at home, and went determined to buy books I really wanted to read and not ones that would simply gather dust on the shelf—that was also the year I bought Bronwen Wallace’s story collection, which has never been dusty.

2011 was the most fantastic year—Rachel Cusk, Isabel Huggan (who I hadn’t even read yet!), Lynn Coady, Caroline Adderson, Ali Smith, and more. I missed the Vic Book Sale in 2012—we were in Alberta for my sister’s wedding. It’s possible I missed it again in 2013, with a small baby in my life and an awareness that more books was the last thing I needed. I was perhaps still trying to get through the books I’d purchased two years before. But my small baby grew, and in 2014, she screamed the entire time I was browsing, which solved the problem of too many books (and not because I cut my browsing short, but just because the screaming baby made it hard to concentrate)—that was the year I bought just two books!

Last year I got to go child-free, a few hours stolen while Harriet and Iris were at school—that was when I got a box of Narnia and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (which I would turn out to love, against all my expectations, but in accordance with everyone else’s).

And now this year, which is the whole point of this post. Believe it or not, I did not actually intend to write my autobiography via my history of the Victoria College Book Sale, but that seems to be just what I’ve done. And this year was a very good haul. Penelope Fitzgerald seems to be the one author left whose books I was discover via the book sale—I got Innocence and The Means of Escape. The Mysterious Case of Leon, by Ellen Raskin, whose The Westing Game is so beloved by me and I reread it in December when I was sick. This novel is meant to be quite different, but it’s full of her characteristic illustrations (she wrote wacky picture books during the ‘sixties, and did you know she designed the original cover of A Wrinkle In Time?) and I think I’ll like it.

I got The New House, by Lettice Cooper, because a Persephone Book for $5 is a deal not to be missed, though I know nothing about Lettice, except that Jilly Cooper married her nephew and wrote the intro to this edition. The History of Little Orphan Annie, by Bruce Smith, was a STEAL for $1, and perhaps a book that had been waiting its whole life to get to me, and this is why I love book sales, the serendipity. Mother Superior is the first book by the excellent Saleema Nawaz, and I wanted to buy this book when I visited her in Montreal this spring, but it wasn’t on the shelf, so I was glad to get this copy. And finally, Broken Promise, by Linwood Barclay, because the number of amazing writers and readers who testify to his greatness are legion. I think this one will be fun.

The Victoria College Book Sale seems as much apart of my autumn as the leaves changing colour, or the kids heading back to school. A pleasure in recent years is encountering friends there without even having made plans to do so. This year, we followed up our book browsing by heading out for lunch together, and admiring all new acquisitions, revelling in the goodness of books.

February 17, 2016

On Carol Shields, Rereading, and The Republic of Love


I’ve gone back off the grid in terms of reading, into backlists and rereads. The occasion of Valentines Day inspired me to pick up Shields’ The Republic of Love, which I read last in 2007, according to the note on the inside cover. (Apparently, I was much more organized in 2007.) I wrote a post about it too, and seemed to be as bowled over by the book’s goodness as I was this time (and also was struck between parallels between it and Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, as I’d later see connections between Small Ceremonies and We Need to Talk About Kevin). I don’t remember how much I loved this book back in 2007, but what I do recall and experienced as a faint echo as I read The Republic of Love this time was how much it made me long to go out and write a book just like it. A sad kind of longing it was because my attempts to be Carol Shields at that point had come up very short and resulted in considerable rejections. (I once wrote a story that was a short story glosa with excerpts from a story in Shields’ Various Miracles, and one rejection I received explained that the inclusion of Carol Shields’ prose on the page with my own only made clear how much my prose was not by Carol Shields. Sigh.) This, this, this, I remember thinking, as I read The Republic of Love in 2007. This is what I want to do. And it was something to be recalling that now from the other side as I now read with a novel of my own.

the-stone-diariesI feel like I’ve grown up with Carol Shields. I received The Stone Diaries as a gift in high school from my mom, a lovely little compact hardcover, before all the awards, I think, because it has no stickers, and her biography was still celebrating The Republic of Love having been shortlisted for The Guardian Short Fiction Prize in 1992. And I loved it—it was easy to love. This was makes Shields work so easy to dismiss—as “light,” not serious. It was her world-building that did it for me, the inclusion of actual photos and a family tree, the poetry written by fictional characters. How the photos were (many of them) of Shields’ own family, and this amazing blurring between fact and fiction was fascinating to me. The novel would stand on its own without these additions, but they pushed its edges, its limits, in ways that were wonderful to somebody who is only just discovering what fiction can do.

carol_shieldsUnless remains my favourite of all her books—I went into great detail to explain why in this post from 2011. It’s a book I’ve returned to again and again, and it’s been rich with surprises every time. Eventually, I’d read all her books, her short story collections. I bought Various Miracles in a used bookshop in Kobe in 2003, and remember reading with rapture. Larry’s Party, Happenstance. I reread Small Ceremonies a few years ago, and really loved it—even with her first novel, it was clear that this was a writer with tremendous vision. I loved her collection of letters with Blanche Howard—I’ve read that book twice and intend to return to it throughout my life. There’s so much wisdom from two remarkable women, about living and writing, marriage and motherhood, and it was they who inspired me to pick up Penelope Fitzgerald’s Home, and I’m so pleased that I did. I think that’s also the book in which Shields notes that she’s no longer jealous of others’ literary success (though perhaps that was in Carol Shields: The Arts of a Writing Life), which seemed like an impossible goal for me once upon a time, but I’ve found my way toward it. I was stirred too by the notes about her “talent for friendship”; Shields has been such an inspiration for me as a writer, a mother, a feminist, a friend.

larryI had no idea what to expect when I picked up The Republic of Love last weekend; I didn’t remember much about it. I wasn’t even sure I really wanted to read it because there are so many books waiting for me to read them for the first time, let alone reading this one for the third or fourth. But here were my impressions as I read it. First, I was hooked immediately. My husband was reading a book he was loving, and said to me a while into it, “I’m hooked now.” “I was hooked on this one in the first paragraph,” I replied. Or the first sentence? “As a baby, Tom Avery had twenty seven mothers.” I’d forgotten about that and though it was Larry from Larry’s Party with the 27 mothers, but but I remember now that he had just one mother and she went and committed botulism. Carol Shields is certainly one for memorable prologues. Also remarkable: Tom is the name of Reta’s husband in Unless. I guess Shields had run out of good men’s names, the stolid types, Toms, and Joes. I think a lot about authors who reuse names—Barbara Pym does this. And then I went and read somewhere that there was no meaning behind it: “With me it’s sometimes just laziness,” she wrote to Philip Larkin. “If I need a casual clergyman or anthropologist I just take one from an earlier book.”

project-bookmarkAnother thing that was important was that I’d visited Winnipeg since my last reread of The Republic of Love, which made the book’s sense of place all the more vivid to me. We’d even made a pilgrimage to the Project Bookmark marker on the corner of River Avenue and Osborne Street, speaking of blurring lines between truth and fiction. I’d essentially stood right there inside the passage of the book, and now there were the words on the page after I’d seen them right there in their world, and the effect was amazing.

Shields loved naming characters (gratuitous Toms notwithstanding), creating the webs, the family trees we see in The Stone Diaries. It seems unfathomable that the world of The Republic of Love is created, made-up, rich as it is with friendships and histories, and couples who knew each other since meeting at someone else’s wedding through somebody’s aunt a thousand years ago. We get entire paragraphs of people who turn up at a party whom we never see again in the book, but they add texture to the world of Shields’ love story here, that it’s never just about two people anyway. Because the lovers have parents, and ex-spouses, and ex-boyfriends who have moved back in with their ex-wife whose husband used to be married to the first wife of one’s fiance. A merry-go-round, Shields refers to it.

1399388970354And oh yes, it’s about love: “It’s possible to speak ironically about romance, but no adult with any sense talks about love’s richness and transcendence, that it actually happens, that it’s happening right now, in the last years of our long, hard, lean, bitter and promiscuous century. Even here it’s happening, in this flat, midcontinental city with its half million people and its traffic and weather and asphalt parking lots and languishing flower borders and yellow-leafed trees—right here, the miracle of it.” (Which was precisely what I was getting at here.)

1399388971695I am older than Fay McLeod, heroine of this story—this is weird to me. Though when you are 36 you start being unfathomably older than so many people and it’s totally bizarre. I have been married a decade and have two kids, but still think it’s strange that Fay McLeod is older than me, but that’s mostly because she’s never been older than me before in the entire time I’ve been reading her story, and it’s hard to get my head around that shift. Will I ever read this book and think that Fay McLeod seems young? When I am 53 and she is 35, I wonder? Though I still think that girls in the high school yearbook who were 18 when I was 14 seem more grown up than I’ll ever be, so maybe there is no cure for this affliction.

startleWhat else…. I love the late night radio in this story, perhaps (sadly) the one bit of the novel that is dated because all the local stations would syndicate something cheap for the hours between 12 and 4 am these days. I love those voices late in the night, the call-ins, and everybody with an opinion, something to say. I love the way that time sweeps here, through nearly a year, I think. How so much happens off-page, in the margins. The voices—how Shields lets them have their space without explaining that they’re there for. I love the way an aerogram letter is essential to the plot. The different points of view, misunderstandings, what is understood but doesn’t have to be said. How there is no plot, except that love is the plot. That one can make a plot with good, decent people who aren’t terrible to each other. This, this, this, was what I meant when I said that this was the kind of book I wanted to write.

There is a lovely line by Elizabeth Hay in her essay from the PEN anthology, The Writing Life, that I underlined when I read it first in 2006: “What I’m doing is catching a ride on the coattails on literature.” YES. It occurred to me too how foundational all of Shields’ work has been for me, finding its way into my literary DNA and while I’m still no Carol Shields, her stories and ideas and preoccupations are echoing away in every paragraph I write. If not for her and all her work, I might be whiling away my time in a literary no-womansland.

PS I am excited about Startle and Illuminate, a new book of Shields’ advice on writing, which is forthcoming this April.

February 8, 2016

The Disappearing Woman Writer

IMG_20160206_152259I’ve never read anything by Constance Beresford-Howe. Why not? Because her books were old, their covers not very enticing. That her focus was on older women also would not have meant anything to me for a very long time, would have been a drawback, actually (I’d had been through enough with The Stone Angel; I still don’t really love that book) though I recall that my mom had a copy of The Book of Eve. I never read her because her books were never assigned to me for a class, which the reason that I read many things. I suspect I didn’t read her books for the same reason that women proclaimed our universe “post-feminist” in the late 1990s. But her name was familiar when I encountered it in The Globe obits a couple of weeks ago. (You see, I am now at the point in my life at which older women have become interesting; I pore over the death notices every Saturday.) A name with which I am that familiar should perhaps have the death of its bearer meet with more press than just an obit: “Educator, Author, Lover of Literature.” The Globe’s Marsha Lederman had tweeted about her death, as well as had a few others who’d had her as a teacher at Ryerson. And I was glad when I learned that a longer obituary for Beresford-Howe was in the works. Because, see, I’d recently read the essay, “The Amazing Disappearing Women Writer”, and realized that lack of attention to Constance Beresford-Howe, in later life and in death, was not a literary anomaly.

In her essay, Jeannine Hall Gailey asks the question: “So, how can the mid-life woman writer attempt not to disappear right before the eyes of prominent male writers, king-makers, editors, judges and juries of prizes and grants? How do we stay seen and heard when perhaps our youthful charms may be diminishing but our art may be improving?”

It was a question I came at as a reader, though I am a writer too with greying hair and a body that is slowly turning into a splendid pudding. But it was as a reader I considered it, how much we are missing. And it affirmed why I do what I do here and elsewhere, championing books from the platform I’ve made, making noise and shouting my darnedest to ensure that women writers don’t just disappear. And that I have to backtrack too, take note of all those books and readers who weren’t bright and shiny enough when I first encountered them, give them another chance.

I was so happy to read Judy Stoffman’s profile of Constance Beresford-Howe in the Globe this weekend, and to have it affirmed that she’s probably a writer I will deeply appreciate, with Barbara Pym comparisons as the cherry on the sundae. I went out on Saturday afternoon and picked up a second-hand copy of The Book of Eve, and look forward to tracking down her other books in time, and to doing a lot of shouting about them.

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