Sick Day(s) Reading

My cold started on Friday afternoon with a scratchy throat and a stuffy nose. By Saturday it was worse, but I mostly ignored it because I had, like most people on the weekends, SHIT TO DO. On Sunday I was practically bedridden, and honestly, I probably deserved that.

I stayed home from work on Monday and Tuesday, and while I spent a lot of that time napping, feeling sorry for myself, and staring into the middle distance, I did manage to read three books.

Regular days never seem to have enough hours in them, but sick days draaaaaag, so I was happy to be able to do something with my time. When you’re not exactly sick enough for bed but also not well enough to go to work, well that’s the perfect storm for sick day Netflix bingewatching (I did a little bit of that too, thank you Derry Girls, season two) and sick day reading. And fortunately for me, Hamilton Public Library had come through with a bunch of my holds last week, so I was set.

I’d been waiting to read Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things for months, and I was so happy to finally have it in my to-read pile. It’s as good as advertised: funny and dark and strange and occasionally kind of gross – taxidermy is at the heart of the novel with lots of graphic descriptions of animal gutting, roadkill scraping, and more – but there is also the story of a family grieving for loves lost and trying to come together to thrive and survive in spite of the forces against them, and the ones truly of their own making. I loved the Mortons and their drama and their messy, messy lives, and the book was a dream to read.

I also read Supper Club by Lara Williams. A few weeks ago while waiting for my son who was attending a comedy show in Toronto, I spent some time wandering in Book City. Supper Club was a book I picked up initially for the cover (it’s lovely) and then for the front flap description because it sounded intriguing. And while I didn’t purchase it that evening, I was intrigued enough to add it to my library holds and I’m very glad I did.

Supper Club is the brainchild of two young women in London who dream of and then create a secret club, a place where women can be themselves, can take up space, can reclaim and sate their appetites for food, drink, and life. Their lives outside of Supper Club are messy and their relationships challenging. As the book progresses, we slowly learn more and more about the book’s narrator, Roberta, the trauma she experienced that ultimately leads to the demons that drive her and to the choices she makes.

Like Mostly Dead Things, Supper Club is graphic in its descriptions, but instead of taxidermy, here it’s food and drink. Food is ever-present, the backdrop, the all-encompassing ingredient that motivates and drives and it is, frankly, glorious. (And now I know how to create a sourdough starter, should I ever want to.)

And finally, to round out my sick day reading list, I read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and I can’t remember for the life of me where I heard about that book or why I put it on my holds list, but I’m not even going to talk about it here except to say that I didn’t like it. I found it reductive and predictable and while some of the language was lovely it was overall a quick, relatively unsatisfying read.

So there, Reese Witherspoon.

And, now that I am healthy-ish and back to work, my book consumption will return to its regular pace, alas. Still, it was kind of luxurious to spend three days just reading. I’d like to do it again soon…this time without the fever and sinus headache, please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back 2 School, Back to the Future

I am late, so late to the back-to-school season, I know. I had planned this post for much earlier in September, but things happen. Not terrible, awful things, mind you. Just…things.

But a few weeks ago, closer to the beginning of the school year, I posted this picture of me on Instagram and it sparked a back-to-school kind of vibe that I didn’t even know had been lurking in my brain.

This was Kindergarten class photo day. The year? 1972.

When I look at this photo I am overwhelmed by some pretty intense feelings for this little girl, this tiny 5-year-old whose cardigan game was fire, even then.

There is a kind of trend online these days where people write letters to their former selves, their childhood selves, their other selves. And I love it, I really do. Imagine being able to confront yourself in another dimension, so to speak; to be able to warn yourself, to prepare yourself, to encourage yourself. To impart the knowledge you have now to yourself back then. What a wonder.

What would you say to another you, a younger you, a different you? I had never really felt the urge until I posted this photo.

There is something about the girl in this photo that feels, to me, more vulnerable than any other school photo I own. Perhaps because it’s Kindergarten, her first foray into the education system, a year that helped forge her love of learning, of reading and writing and of following rules. (oh how she loved and continues to love rules.)

And perhaps it’s because of this vulnerability that I do, finally, have some thoughts for 5-year-old me:

  1. You are a pretty smart little kid and for the longest time, you will be picked on for being “the smart one” in the class and you will resist that completely until one day you will learn that someone else is “the smart one” and you are just the ok one, and you will find that extremely hard to take. So I am here to tell you that it’s ok to be the smartest kid in the class. It’s also ok to not be the smartest kid in the class. This probably feels like a contradiction but as with everything I’m about to tell you, you just have to trust me. Be yourself. You are actually pretty great.
  2. Your illness does not define you. I know it’s hard right now, it’s so, so hard. But soon, very soon, you will get a diagnosis. You will be asthmatic for your whole life, I’m sorry to tell you, but there eventually will be medication to help you breathe. It won’t be great at first, but it will be something, and the medication only gets better as time goes on. Trust me. You won’t always miss so much school, so much life. You will dance and you will run and in 2015 (a lifetime from now, I know, but just you wait) you will earn a black belt in karate. YOU will do this. YOU.
  3. You will always be emotional. Lots of things make you cry now, and lots of things will continue to make you cry. But this: your empathy, your compassion, your ability to put yourself in others’ shoes, these things actually make you strong. So go ahead and cry and continue to feel things deeply. Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t.
  4. I know that Rosa Too Little by Sue Felt is your favourite book right now, and the only book you ever want to borrow from the library,  and that’s ok, but you know what? You will move on from that book, and even though it will always hold a special place in your heart, you will read HUNDREDS of other books. Really! And the library will continue to be a place of solace for you and one day when you are grown up you will not only WORK in libraries but you will also be asked to teach classes in the public library and you will think that you could not be any luckier. And this will actually be true.
  5. You will spend years trying to find your signature “look” with various fashion trends but your ultimate style will come full circle to this very photo. A plaid dress, a sensible cardigan, tights, and cute shoes. Own it. It’s your destiny.

Happy September, friends. Knock ’em dead.

 

 

Come and cry with me as I gush about Melissa Barbeau’s The Luminous Sea!

It’s not difficult to become completely taken by The Luminous Sea based on the cover alone, which of course they tell you not to judge books by, but here is a secret for you: I do in fact judge books by their covers. Well, maybe not judge exactly. But I am definitely a sucker for a well-designed and beautiful book cover and this one might be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

The premise of this novel is a relatively simple one, yet we quickly find out that simplicity is deceiving. Vivienne is a young summer student hired to study the potential reasons for the glow-in-the-dark waters in a fictional bay and area of Newfoundland. One evening while out on the water taking samples she catches a creature unlike anything ever seen before, brings it to the lab where she works, only to have her discovery taken over by other researchers whose motives may not be as pure as they should be.

I would like you all to know that from the moment the fish creature landed in Vivienne’s boat, I had made up my mind that I would die for her. The fish creature. Well, for both of them, really. And the entire book had me holding my breath, waiting to see if I needed to jump in, somehow, and rescue them.

The Luminous Sea is a short-ish novel, under 250 pages. By all rights I should have been able to finish it in a day or two. Between commuting. lunch hour reading, and after work reading, I usually consume a lot of pages in a few days. But this book. This book I had to take in small doses, doling it out to myself as a reward for completing a task. It was something to be savoured in the early evening sitting on the deck after dinner with a glass of wine. A chapter or two at a time, no more. This story demanded to be drawn out, to let the words – the beautiful, evocative words – settle in my head and my heart. I needed time to process each magical phrase, to allow the imagery to wash over me.

I realize I am being dramatic, but there is not a lot I can do about that, I’m sorry. Read this and you’ll understand:

“The evening is calm, the ocean uneventful. The copper sea unspectacular in its beauty. Sun pennies dapple the water and Vivienne feels as if she is sitting in a bowl of shining coins worth so little they have been taken out of circulation. She eases the boat around the point and heads towards the stacks of the sunken ship, just past the lighthouse. As the sun sinks in the sky, the pennies disappear and the water regains its mundane jewel colours — emerald, sapphire, lapis, turquoise, tourmaline. The ocean extends for endless, monotonous, beautiful miles.”

Every line is like this, every line is beautiful.

Fog is exhaled onto the landscape by the fog dragon that lives over the far hill.

The night is described as ‘glassy’.

The sea throbs; the fish creature curls like a galaxy.

It is all too glorious.

The novel is fast-paced as well, and that is one of the reasons I slowed it down as I read it. It is so easy to read quickly because the story itself is gripping, but doing so would be like taking a train trip with only the destination in mind, being in an incredible hurry to get there, with no attention paid to the breathtaking scenery en route. And that would be a shame.

The Luminous Sea did, in fact, leave me breathless many times as I read it. The final section unravels at breakneck speed, and the ending is perfectly poignantly, perfect.

Wade into it, friends. It’s a stunning, wonderful read. And promise to let me know how much you loved it. And how much you cried.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family (and other) Dramas R Us

I don’t usually think about the ways in which the novels I read might be linked. Occasionally something occurs to me midway through a book and I remember another book, recently read, with similar themes, perhaps even similar situations, or similar locales. I read a lot of Canadian authors, so that kind of checks out, location-wise, at least. It’s a big place, Canada, but when you read enough, you’re bound to read more than one novel set in St. John’s or Winnipeg or Cape Breton.

I read three novels in relatively quick succession recently, set in those exact locations, and in that exact order, but I didn’t realize until I wanted to write this post that all three were first novels for each of the authors, which is kind of a coincidence. And I do love a good coincidence.

It’s interesting how books in my life line up to be read. Sometimes it’s library holds coming in fast and furious and in order to make sure the books are returned on their due dates, they need to be read in a particular order. With or without renewal options. Sometimes books just jump out at me from a list on a blog or in the books section of a newspaper or maybe someone whose book suggestions I respect has tweeted something about a particular book and bam, that one gets added to my list as well. I typically have a to-be-read stack like most people, but that stack might sit neglected for weeks or even months when holds arrive and other books are thrust toward me. And that’s ok, they’ll be there for me, they’re not going anywhere.

The books I am talking about here are ones that came, seemingly, out of nowhere. Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles was a book that sounded intriguing to me, so I added it to my holds list a very long time ago. And it arrived, suddenly, like all holds do, and so I read it, and to be honest, it took me a few tries to get into it. Once I found I was able to sync up to its groove, though, I tore through it in less than a week. It’s not an easy read, parts are harsh and cruel and I occasionally had to walk away from it. I wondered at one point if my initial hesitation had to do with what was coming. Can you be “book psychic” I wondered. Or does the author just do a really great job of setting everything up for us? Is it foreshadowing at its absolute best? Probably, yes. Definitely, actually.

Next, I read Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead because of a tweet from someone (I no longer remember who) who had read it and loved it, and it was available at my library so I grabbed at it too. I loved the characters in this book so much and the story was so beautifully told with love and pain and longing, and it was hard not to get dragged in deep to its world of equal parts love and pain.

Finally, I read Crow by Amy Spurway because I read a review of it and it too was shockingly available at the library. Crow is a tragic, hilarious, and at times overwhelming family and community saga with a whole lot of wild twists and turns and some of the most unforgettable characters ever.

And so while I didn’t start out planning to read a theme, I somehow did read a theme. Another coincidence, and a happy one at that.

In all three novels, family is at the heart of the story, and not just the family you’re born to, but the family you choose, the relationships you foster and the ones you run from. The ones who drive you around the twist and the ones who keep you sane. The ones who hurt you because of the love they have for you, and the ones who just, well, hurt you. And sometimes they are all one and the same, sometimes even wrapped up within the same person. The characters in these novels are wonderful: complex and perfectly imperfect, fighting for their lives, their loves, and their places in the world, much like we all are.

Relatable? Completely. And very, very highly recommended.

 

 

 

Who Are the People in YOUR Neighbourhood?

A couple of days ago, a woman I know only because we follow each other on Instagram, had a baby. This is her second – she now has two boys which of course I think is great because I also have two boys – and I also remember when she had her first son, almost three years ago now. Time flies! She and baby boy seem to be doing well, and he is the loveliest, chubbiest little fellow. My heart is so happy for her and her sweet family.

Early yesterday morning, another woman I know posted a photo of herself heading into the hospital to have her second baby. This woman I actually know IRL; her grandmother and her great-aunt were good friends of my parents back in the day, and so we’ve chatted and interacted over the years, and now she and her family live across the street from me. Small world! And, not only that but when I was around 14 years old, I attended a baby shower when she was born. Which is…weird, yeah? I held her when she was a few months old and now she is a grown woman with a successful business and a family of her own.

Which, ok duh, yes, that is indeed how time and life work, but there is a very visceral part of me that kneejerkingly wants to react with “Oh my god, I’m so old!” But there is another part of me that says “Oh wow, this is keeping me so young.”

And then I started thinking about community and about belonging.

When John and Charles and I moved to this house in the fall of 1999, we were, clearly, a young family, just starting our lives together. Charles was not even two, Max, not yet even conceived. We had hoped to add another baby to our lives and when Max arrived in July 2000, our family was complete and we began to fully settle into our home and neighbourhood. Eventually, the boys went to school, we met neighbours who became friends and we met neighbours who we knew only to say hello to. There were neighbours who moved in and stayed for a time then left, and neighbours who were there before we got here and are still here.

And as we’ve aged and our children have grown up in this neighbourhood, a funny thing happened. It seems as though, now, we are the old people. I know, right? But, at 52 (me) and 53 (John), and having lived in the same house for nearly 20 years, it’s honestly true. And I kind of love it.

I love sharing in a community of people who are at different stages of life; like the older couple behind us who were here the day we moved in, and are still living in that same house behind us. Like the family two doors down who moved in back in February and just had a baby (hooray neighbourhood babies!)  I love that nearly 19 years ago we were the ones introducing a new baby to the neighbourhood and now, going forward, we get to be the ones to do the welcoming, to introduce ourselves to the families with the tiny new additions. To look out for them and their kids, like our neighbours did and continue to do for us and our kids.

And that is our community, our physical community. And I love it. But what about the other community, the online community, the one created through follows, and the friends I’ve met through social media? Where does that fit? Does it fit? My argument is that it does. Of course, it does.

And yes, some would insist that these people, these online people cannot actually be my friends since I don’t actually know them, and to those people, I say, whatevs and also shhhhh, let people enjoy things. Because it’s 2019.

I have engaged with people online who I have not met, who I might never meet, but my heart has broken for them when they tell me/their followers that their mother is terminally ill, or that their child is being bullied. I have celebrated the births of their children and mourned the loss of their parents, their beloved pets. I have reached out to these people sometimes on their timeline or feed, but more often in a private message (should they welcome private messages) because I wanted to offer condolences or congratulations or support not in a performative way, but in a heartfelt way. This isn’t to say that all posts on timelines and feeds are performative, but much like a handwritten thank you or sympathy card from days of old, a direct message seems more personal, more thoughtful. We see a lot of “thoughts and prayers” in the media, from politicians and celebrities and regular people and the entire meaning of that phrase has been lost in the noise of the online world. Many people lament the loss of human interaction in favour of this online world, but I am not one of those people. I think if you are deliberate in your intentions and your wishes for your online friends truly come from a place of caring, a Twitter dm can be as effective and welcomed as a letter.

When Max was in hospital last fall, people I had never met, people who follow me on Instagram or Twitter for my dog or my wine and library-related antics (which are truly legendary it must be said) reached out to tell me how much my updates meant to them, how hard they were pulling for Max and for us, and how much they wished they could help. Many of these messages began, “You don’t know me, but I follow you and I want you to know I am thinking of you and your family…” and others read “Thank you for sharing and for being so open…” and honestly, some of these messages moved me as much or more than ones from close family members. Some had had similar experiences and offered an ear if I had questions. Others just wanted to send a virtual hug and a kind word. And it was lovely and it was overwhelming.

“People are too nice!” I would say, almost daily, to my husband, usually through my hiccuping tears in the midst of an ugly crying session. The thought of (virtual) strangers taking the time to send their support, their prayers, and good vibes was astounding to me. And at the same time not astounding to me, because it’s the sort of thing I do too.

It makes me so happy to be the old person in the neighbourhood now, the one that has been here “forever” as my kids would say, and I’m just as happy to be the old person on your Instagram feed encouraging you and supporting you and feeling for you too. I want to read about your struggles with getting your toddler to eat or getting your dad to go to the doctor about that mole on his leg. I can even offer advice if you want it (I would never give unsolicited advice of course) too! Please do keep in mind that my parenting skills were honed in the early to mid-2000s and any advice I have to offer is likely highly out of date, but it’s yours if you want it. And it will come with a warm internet hug and a LOT of encouragement that you are already doing amazing. Just keep going.

And, as I said way up there at the beginning of this post, being involved in this kind of community keeps me young. Not in a “How do you do, fellow kids?” kind of way, but, much like living in a neighbourhood with families and seniors and more, having a varied internet community allows me to witness life unfolding in so many different ways, and at so many different points in time, and that can only be a good thing. It is such a privilege to be able to share in the experiences and milestones of my social media friends and their families. At times it’s heartbreaking and at other times it’s glorious and wonderful. You know, just like life.

Community is community is community. And I know the internet can be a dark, dark pit of despair, but I’m not willing to give up on it just yet. There’s so much more I want to be a part of. And I like all of you too much, too.

Lit in the City

This year I was once again thrilled to be a part of Hamilton’s very own gritLIT Literary Festival.

In the past, I have been on the organizing committee as a volunteer, as part of the marketing team, and most recently as the writing contest manager. Yes, gritLIT does have a writing contest, and you should probably enter. Next year, of course.

For a festival that happens in April, it’s not unusual that a lot of the heavy lifting and organizing and planning goes on late in the previous year. And late this past year I was extremely preoccupied while my son was in hospital, then with his subsequent recovery, and sadly my gritLIT responsibilities fell away. And Jen, our artistic director was amazing about it, of course, and of course the contest happened and then the festival happened and oh was it a good one, friends. For gritLIT’s 15th anniversary, stops were pulled out, let me tell you. I do wish I had been able to be more involved this year, but there is, of course, always next year to amp up my involvement. And now, let me tell you what I did get to do.

I hosted two workshops over the course of the weekend. The first was world building with Thea Lim, author of An Ocean of Minutes, the book that made me want to start a book club JUST SO I COULD TALK ABOUT IT WITH SOMEONE. And Thea is delightful and so, so knowledgeable and funny, and honestly, her book is as wonderful as she is, and everyone should read it. And then talk to me about it. Please. I’m begging you.

I also hosted and participated in K.D. Miller’s workshop which was all about connecting art and stories and was about as perfect a workshop as I have ever attended. Her most recent collection of short stories is inspired by the works of Alex Colville, and she brought small recreations of Colville paintings as prompts and inspiration. If you don’t know Colville, please be aware that there is a LOT going on in his paintings and they make for excellent – if potentially dark – writing prompts.

I then attended a fascinating panel with Tamara Faith Berger, John Miller and Claudia Dey (who has impeccable style, FYI) which was all about writing sex in literature, and later that evening I went to another panel called Confronting the Apocalypse featuring Thea Lim, Waubgeshig Rice, and Larissa Lai. And finally on Saturday a discussion about love, loss, and betrayal with Claudia Dey and Antanas Sileika and moderated by Ann Y.K. Choi who remains one of the loveliest people on earth.

I also got to drink wine with Gary Barwin and gush to Thea Lim not only about how much I loved her book but also how much I loved the Largehearted Boy playlist she created for it, because I am a sucker for those book playlists, honestly. And hers is a really good one.

If it seems as though I am namedropping, I totally am, and I’m not done. On Sunday, I watched Liz Harmer and Scott Thornley as they talked Re-imagining Hamilton with Mark Osbaldeston, and then I had to go home and, you know, spend some time with my family.

So basically what I’m saying is that when you attend and/or volunteer at a literary festival, you get to meet a lot of amazing, amazing authors. They will blow your mind in their workshops and on panels and in interviews, and then they will graciously sign your books and you might even get a chance to drink wine and talk random shit with them. Authors, they’re just like us!

There was so much more I wanted to see and participate in and next year, when I am a full-fledged volunteer again, and I don’t have to spend twelve hours a day in a hospital for five solid weeks during the most formative time of the festival, I will do it all.

Thanks for being amazing, gritLIT. Can’t wait until 2020.

I Survived Barton Street Too: For 52 Years and Counting

I should be working on my Camp NaNoWriMo project because I am a few hundred words behind, but after reading an Opinion piece in the Hamilton Spectator earlier today, I was inspired to blog instead. Well, inspired might not be the correct word. I was seized with a blinding hot rage is more along the lines of what I felt, honestly. And oh boy, where to begin.

In this piece, the author decides to walk the entire length of Barton Street in the northern end of Hamilton. Barton runs from Stoney Creek in the east end of the city, to Locke St. in the central part. Why? Well because he is a transplanted Torontonian, don’t you know? (sorry Toronto, but most of these dudes are) and it seems he wanted to get to know his new city – his “adopted hometown” and its “most maligned thoroughfare.” Ok, sure. I guess?

It’s a pretty big task, honestly. It’s a long street. And when he said that he survived, I thought maybe he meant because it’s a really long walk and wow, maybe that’s a little much for him? Haha, no, of course, I didn’t think that. I knew exactly what he meant.

Throughout his walk and the article, he manages to hit nearly every stereotype in the book and then some. From the bars that would have been “heaving with steelworkers in the ’60s” to the closure of the Prince Edward Tavern being “One fewer place to drown your sorrows on cheap pints – or advance alcoholism, depending on your perspective.” I guess because hipster bars only have expensive pints and contribute to zero alcoholism? Help me out here, bud.

There’s more, there is oh so much more, and I encourage you to read it. It is, as I’ve said, an opinion piece, but some opinions ought to be kept to oneself.

He does seem to like the gentrification of a couple of areas on Barton because of course, he does. But I don’t know how anyone can walk that street and not notice the lovely churches at Barton and Sherman. St. Ann’s and St. Stanislaus have a proud history of serving the residents of that area. Or Woodlands Park. Or the Polish and Portuguese bakeries, the small grocery stores, the bustling hardware store and the stores selling bonboniere and other gifts. There is community there and there always has been, but it’s much, much easier to write about how downtrodden the street is, how it’s drug dealers and no sidewalk buzz. Was it a weekday when you undertook your epic walk? People work during the day. During the week. Consider that perhaps before making sweeping pronouncements about how the place requires serious saving.

You might already know or have guessed that I grew up on Barton Street, well just off it on Oak Avenue. So by disclosing that it would be easy for you or anyone to dismiss my thoughts as just anger at someone sullying my memory of the street, but the truth is I would defend anyone’s street in anyone’s city from people who arrive, agenda firmly in place, form an opinion, and leave. Whether it’s another street in Hamilton or Windsor, Calgary, Halifax, or Toronto – ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, honestly. And no, I don’t want to talk about how great Barton Street was when I was growing up, that is so not the point. And I also don’t want to try and convince this writer to come back later in the spring or summer when the street is livelier! And prettier! And please come back and like usssssss!

Barton Street is not without its problems, of course. There are no streets in any city anywhere that are without problems, and walking the length of a street you’ve never been on before in a city you barely know and congratulating yourself for living to see another day doesn’t make you a hero. It just shows what a privileged asshole you are.