this is not a review: ‘the utility of boredom’, by andrew forbes

 
Here is my entire lifelong experience of baseball:

In gym class, being the last person to be chosen for the team, always.

Nieces and nephew who played baseball.  (Oh, did they? I only recall attending one game and being totally confused by everything including why all the parents were yelling.)

Children of nieces and nephew who currently play baseball.  (If they’re happy I’m happy for them… yawn.. It’s still not my favourite outing but I bring my camera these days and that makes it better. Here’s a pic I took at a recent game. I call it: things I’d rather be doing than watching baseball.)

The World Series, 1992(Even I contributed to that decibel level.)

The one Jays’ game I’ve attended.  (We had excellent seats apparently but it didn’t help the tedium. Have blocked out the details. Nothing to report.)

Two friends and one house painter who rhapsodize about the religion of baseball. (The earnestness of their comments has stayed with me for years and keeps me oddly curious about the WHY of whatever is the game’s draw.)

And then into my life falls The Utility of Boredom, a collection of essays, which (to my complete surprise), explain so much, not the least being that boredom is integral  to the game—it’s an actual thing,  like the space between notes played on a piano, that part of the beauty of baseball is that there is time for climbing trees. The theory is Forbes’… the analogies, mine.

Forbes’ style is casual, anecdotal, written with a wide knowledge and deep passion for the game yet readable on different levels, depending where you are on the baseball knowledge continuum. For neophyte me, it was all pleasure of discovery and details that will forever stick, like how baseball is made for radio in a way that doesn’t work as perfectly for other sports, how the rhythm of it allows you to have a game on in the background as you go about your day and you don’t miss a thing.

I like that image.

It’s an oddly comforting book. And I’m not even sure why I’m choosing this word, but it’s the right word. I enjoyed the reading, enjoyed having my eyes opened to the ‘comforts’ this game seems to offer its fans.

In ‘Sanctuary’, the opening essay, Andrew Forbes explains his own introduction to baseball and that feeling of safety and the-world-suddenly-makes-sense  vibe inside a ballpark. ‘Jim Eisenreich’s Eyes’ is about finding a morality trigger from a baseball card. ‘Ballparks of America’ is a surprisingly beautiful tribute not to the stadiums and their legends but to the towns and the people that define them, delivered in bite-sized morsels.

 

“In Sanford, Maine, a woman tells you what the mill closures have done to the town and how there are no tourist dollars because Sanford is so far inland. Orchard Beach catches all the tourists. But Sanford has its little ballpark proudly bearing a ‘Babe Ruth was here’ plaque…”

“In Seattle, from your seat high up in the Safeco Field stands, you can see Mt. Rainier as well as Felix Hernandez. Both are astonishing…”

“In Los Angeles they beat a man into a coma for wearing a Giants jersey…”

I very much doubt I’ll ever be a seamhead (baseball fan) or even enjoy watching a game, but neither will I ever again doubt the sincerity with which those who love the game love it. Also, I believe it’s important to understand The Other… and though sports remains a weird thing to me, The Utility of Boredom has gone a long way to explaining its appeal on a deeper level.

“Boredom, in the baseball sense, is a synonym for lackadaisical; it’s the only proper response to all that green grass and blue sky. Slouchy in the Viera stands, the beery patrons were in no hurry to shake the peanut shells from their hair and return to real life. They wanted to sprawl over those sticky plastic seats for which they’d paid. And the players—the unknown pitcher on the mound palming the ball mindlessly, the batter stepping in, stepping out, stepping back in, adjusting his cup, a batting glove, his helmet—were happy to oblige.

“This is where good radio announcers truly shine: filling the space. I once heard Vin Scully…. describing a cloud over Dodger Stadium and it was the most riveting and moving 30 seconds of the the entire broadcast. It’s for this reason too that baseball became a game of such minute statistical detail: that folks at microphones should have something to say when there was nothing to discuss and nothing happening on the field.”

So glad I stumbled upon this.

I wasn’t disappointed in the least.

Nor bored for even a moment.

(&, honestly, no one could be more surprised about that than me.)

 

 

 

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this is not a review: ‘in this house are many women’, by sheree fitch

 

When you hear the name Sheree Fitch, you may think children’s books, Mable Murple’s creator or simply one of CanLit’s most beloved player of words.

You’d be right, of course, on all counts, but there is also her adult fiction and poetry and if you’ve missed that, you’re missing a lot.

In This House are Many Women  came to me in a most magical way (what I call the Sheree Fitch effect) and I’ve been reading and re-reading it for months so that it’s pretty much found a permanent spot on my coffee table and sometimes bedside table. Poetry combined with story in poetic form, about and from the perspective of women in both difficult and joy-filled situations… motherhood as a homeless woman, daily rituals, escaping domestic violence, finding connection in friendship, and learning to trust oneself. There aren’t enough books from these perspectives, that of women in shelters, and women ultimately helping women.

It’s the kind of thing, thankfully, most women will never know first hand, but … if you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to leave your house in the dead of night while someone is threatening to kill you if you leave and you keep leaving anyway, keep running out the door because it’s become apparent to you that your chances of living are much slimmer if you stay (chances of living happily are nil), so you keep running, not sure to where or to what, all you know for now is why...

… if you’ve ever wondered what happens next, then this is the book to read.

It’s Milk and Honey  for grown ups.

First published in 1993 and reissued in 2004 by Goose Lane, In This House are Many Women is a collection of poems that read like prose, a journey through the life of women. Women in peril. Women as community. Women as resilient survivors. While there is plenty of gritty reality, there is much humour, love, hope and, ultimately, the message that women helping women is how it’s always been, and that  is no small potatoes.

In other words, it’s a gem of a book and I’m stunned that I haven’t come across it before. Since discovering it I’ve made a list of people I want to give it to, not the least of which are women staying in shelters.

The first of four sections opens with a suite of poems following the journey of escape, beginning with ‘The Runner’—

She runs:
past women with drawstring mouths
women with wombs puckered out
from plum to grape to raisin
women who have never known
what wetness means

In ‘What Rhonda Remembers About the First Five Minutes’ there is arrival at the shelter, the sound of a buzzer, strangers, lights, attention, the imagined chorus of:

someone new is coming
someone new is coming
someone new is coming

— giving the sense of entering a prison. That this house of many women is safe and nourishing takes time to discover. At first it’s only not home. The windows are bullet proof, there are security cameras everywhere. The doors are locked, everyone is a stranger, the police are on speed dial. At first there is the matter of safety, then how to simply function, how to deal with the impossibility of emotions running through you while, at the same time, you are numb to all feeling.

In ‘Edna’, the narrator looks at her swollen face in a mirror “wishing I could see the wrinkles”.

Each poem is another woman’s story. You can almost imagine the conversations as women feed their children or sit in communal areas, drinking coffee, smoking, biting their nails as they listen to one another.

In ‘Valerie Listens to Gwendolyn’, the narrator explains how the leaving went for her:

I did not leave because of his violence
I left because of mine
I got another phone call
from another woman
I went in and watched him sleeping
saliva like dried chalk
made a rim around his open
mouth
a perfect target

I had a gun
I placed it on his pillow
then I left.

There are poems about the NIMBYness toward shelters, revelations about the homeless, the roles women play when they share a space, who mothers the others, who is most in need of what and who will provide the whats. Unsurprisingly, from a writer who understands the child mind, there are meditations and revelations from a child’s perspective too (as in god wears flannel shirts).

One of my favourites is ‘Advice’, which is a list of exactly that, beginning with:

Read everything Gloria Steinem ever wrote
her last book first

and ending with:

The best answers will always be questions
You can always call your aunt.

Another, ‘Grand LaPierre, Newfoundland’ tells in pure Fitchean style, the essentials of writing a poem as if one’s life depended on it:

...it doesn’t have to rhyme
but it must always have a beat
a finger-snap
a toe-tap

Fitch is writing here from the inside and the outside. One has the feeling she is both part of this world and an observer at the same time.

The thread running through the book is that words are a lifeline, the writing of our lives, the sharing of our stories, that through kindness and connection with others (including Peter Gzowski’s voice), all kinds of hurdles can be overcome, that we are not alone. It’s not only about women in dire straits, but about women being strong in the way of women…

So you can understand why I can’t bear to shelve it. When a book like this crosses your path it’s good to keep it close, to open it often.

♦♦♦

On any given night in Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters because it isn’t safe at home.
On any given night, about 300 women and children are turned away because shelters are already full.
‘Why She Stays’

this is not a review — ‘our souls at night’, by kent haruf

 

I’ve said this before… my favourite books are those where nothing much happens other than whole worlds change.

Oh my lord did I love this book of nothing and everything.

In a nutshell:

Louis Waters and Addie Moore are widowed, long time neighbours, who really only have a passing knowledge of each other’s lives, in the way of neighbours who have shared a street for decades. Aware but not involved.

They’re both good people. And, now, perhaps, also lonely.

The book opens with Addie knocking on Louis’ door and asking if he would be at all interested in sleeping with her. She means it literally. No funny business, just pj’s and slumber. Oh, and talking. That’s really what she’s looking for, that special kind of conversation that only happens when you’re lying in bed next to someone.

He accepts.

He continues to live in his own house in the same way he’s been doing for years, but at night he goes over to Addie’s for a single beer while she has a glass of wine and then they brush their teeth and hit the hay.

(The tooth-brushing is not incidental. Remember this is a story where nothing and everything happens. The details of life are beautifully wrought.)

Once in bed they talk.

At first, of course, it’s all awkwardness, but it evolves into something so essential to their well-being that neither of them can imagine living any other way. They’re not a couple but they’re more than friends. They come to reveal everything to each other in ways they never did in their marriages.

But people being people soon begin to pass judgments, especially those people unhappy in their own lives. Louis and Addie don’t give a fig. If anything the judgements only cause them to judge themselves (which is such a healthy reaction) and when they don’t find anything sinister about themselves they take it up a notch and begin hanging out together in public. Not necessarily an easy decision given how the elderly are made to feel they don’t count, that they hardly have a thought in their heads worth hearing.

Addie and Louis know this is the way old people are seen but they don’t see themselves or others this way. They have such wonderful, admirable balls.

A really charming part of the book is when Addie’s six year old grandson Jamie comes to live with her while Addie’s son Gene and his wife try to fix their marriage. Louis and Addie and the boy become a kind of family unit (along with Ruth, a friend of Addie’s) and Jamie is nourished in a way he’s never experienced. He stops crying, he’s able to sleep at night. Life is good.

“They ate a supper of macaroni and cheese casserole and iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing and canned green beans and bread and butter and iced tea poured from an old heavy glass pitcher and there was Neapolitan ice cream for dessert. The dog lay at Jamie’s feet.” 

All of which royally pisses off Addie’s son when he hears about all that happiness. He decides to pay a visit, assumes (the truly wonderful) Louis has nefarious intentions, chastises his mother for her lifestyle and takes Jamie back home well before his marriage is anywhere near fixed. Then he forces Addie to choose between her relationship with Louis and her relationship with her grandson.

This is one of those deliciously slender books, easily read in a day, spare writing yet saying all that needs to be said, in the way of the best conversations. Satisfying to the core. I would read this one again and again for the layers it reveals and the questions it asks us to consider about family, friendship, intimacy, community, loyalty and aging. For starters.

Haruf is new to me but I’m already looking for more of his earlier work.

Available online at two of my favourite indies — Hunter Street Books and Blue Heron Books.

this is not a review: ‘glass beads’ by dawn dumont

 
Classed as ‘stories’ on the cover, I began reading Dawn Dumont’s Glass Beads  in tiny slivers, a page here, an opening paragraph there, trying to find a story that hooked me, a place to begin since for some reason I didn’t choose to begin at the beginning. The truth is I almost stopped reading because these little snippets of things weren’t grabbing me. All I gleaned was that each story was about very young people and various kinds of young people angst.

But something about Dumont’s writing style kept me reading… just one more snippet, and then another. The rawness of the characters (they felt like people I knew, maybe in some cases people I once was), the way she captures voice and her superb handling of dialogue (which soon begins to feel less like reading and more like eavesdropping), all of it coming across so true… and before I know it I’m flipping to the beginning of the book and starting again from there.

In a nutshell:  the stories follow four friends over the course of fifteen years, through the angst of teenhood to the angst of young adulthood.

So what makes it special?

Dumont’s writing. It’s as simple as that.

Also, she taps into a universal feeling right off the bat in the opening story, “Kokum’s House”… with a line about how if you’re told something often enough, no matter how sad….“tears don’t come after a while.”.

The tone of the book is….. let me tell you a story about people.

That the characters are indigenous isn’t incidental.

Not for one moment do we forget these are Native kids growing into Native adulthood and that there are issues, events and problems that are specific to them and to no other culture (starlight tours). But neither do we forget for a single moment that there are issues, events and problems these characters experience that are universal (the floundering of youth, drugs, alcohol and parties), and it’s the way she blends things that gives the book its power.

Dumont has written what might be one of the hardest stories to write, one that features a specific culture (it could as easily be a specific race or religion, a sexual orientation… anything that isn’t WASP and cis-gendered) without shining a light on that ‘difference’ or making the difference  the story.

It’s not about   being indigenous any more than a story with white characters is a story about whiteness.

It’s about Nellie who is level-headed and wise and not especially the popular one, the one who “… had never worked as a waitress but she had delivered beers to her dad in the big chair.” And Everett, who womanizes and drinks too much and to whom she’s emotionally drawn.

It’s about Julie, whose attractiveness is part of the reason she succeeds and part of the reason she fails.

“What other people wanted came naturally to Julie and they weren’t complimenting her so much as expressing their desire to have it.”

It’s about these indigenous kids looking at Cosmo and Chatelaine, reading about diets and fung shui, just like everyone else.

It’s about Taz who strives to climb the ladder of Native politics and lands a job with the federal government, in land claims. He calls himself a hired gun. “I come in and bury the Natives in paperwork.” He says it pays well but a comment puts it into perspective. “Enjoy that blood money.”

It’s about what works and doesn’t work on reserves. The band that neglects to send tuition, resulting in a student being unable to register for college.

It’s about how there’s a perception that being in the city will be different than being on the reserve, “… he won’t drink in the city because being away from the reserve will allow him to make connections…  he would be building things, not tearing them apart. Crow’s Nest was behind him along with all of his sad eyed friends and their growing guts and whining that the chief and council sucked but never doing anything about it.”

And it’s about reality.

“But the people in the city turned out to be exactly like the people on the rez. There was always another party, another reason to turn it up.”

Dumont doesn’t put a glossy sheen on anything. She admits there are problems on reservations, with Native governments, people with all kinds of differing views. There isn’t one Native Culture. But neither does she shy away from softness. The sense of community is strong and comes through.

Toward the end of the book, when the characters are young adults, a more adult focus on what’s happening within communities comes to light. In one scene, men just shooting the shit, eating Chinese food, the tone becomes serious when talk centres around how the Assembly of Chiefs has lost connection to what’s important.

“I see that our people are getting arrested, locked up, committing violence or getting dumped by the side of the road – I see the young kids on the streets wandering – where are their parents? Why aren’t they at home? – like how I was at home at their age, doing my homework, watching TV with my family… that’s where kids should be… because pretty soon they’re not kids anymore, they’re adults and then we’ve lost them.”

Native youth…. youth is what’s important.

“That’s what those fuckers should be focusing on.”

The title, Glass Beads,   doesn’t have a corresponding story, leaving me to wonder what the reference is. My interpretation is the idea of trading… what we trade, what anyone trades, for what they hope will be a good life.

And how we forge ahead when that trade turns out not be an entirely a fair deal.

While the stories are stand alone quality, they’re so much more when standing together. For that reason I prefer to think of the book as a novel.

And I would absolutely recommend starting at the beginning.

Glass Beads is available at Hunter Street Books and Blue Heron Books.

Support indies! (These are two of my faves.)

♦♦

Thanks to one of the comments I picked up a copy of Nobody Cries at Bingo,  and not only loved it, I think it ought to be essential *Canada150*  reading. What a brilliant way she has of presenting modern indigenous life so that it feels simply like life, no labels, yet we feel the difference. Such subtleness, and that humour….

“Auntie and Mom looked at one another and shook their heads. What had happened to kids these days? Back in their day, a kid was lucky to get to go anywhere. Growing up in a family of twelve, you were lucky if your mom remembered your face, never mind took you to bingo. And if you did want to go to bingo, it wasn’t just a quick five-minute drive, it was a two-day journey involving a horse, a wagon and three portages. Now those were days when people appreciated bingo…”

 

 

this is not a review: ‘when we were alone’, by david a. robertson (pics, julie flett)

 
A little girl and her grandmother tend a garden and as they do the girl asks simple questions about the beautiful clothing the grandmother wears, the luxurious style of her hair, the language she whispers as she feeds a bird…

The grandmother tells what life was like when she was the child’s age and still lived at home, in her “community”. She talks about friends and traditions and then refers to the school she went to, described only as being “far away from home” where things were very different. The child asks why they cut her hair, why Cree was a forbidden language and each time the grandmother offers a gentle sliver of truth, ending with some version of: “They wanted us to be like everybody else.”

The title is a reference to the instinct for their sense (and survival) of ‘self’, the small pleasures they found in things like the colour of leaves and braiding grass into their shorn hair.

I love this book for its story of courage and strength, but also for its structure, the rhythm of the questions and answers, the repetition of certain lines, especially the reference to a school that was “far away from home”… (which surely begs the question from any young reader/listener as to why  it was so far away). I love the beautiful illustrations by Julie Flett (the colour palette, all rich earth tones and vivid brights alternating with the institutional monotones of muted greys and brown). But mostly I love this book because it invites children who know nothing about the history of residential schools to ask questions of their own, and so maybe, and gently, we can begin a conversation long overdue.

When We Were Alone  can be purchased on-line from Blue Heron Books and Hunter Street Books, which I only mention because they’re two of my faves.

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this is not a review: ‘mitzi bytes’, by kerry clare

 
Whether reading her blog Pickle Me This, her essays or short fiction, The M Word  or trash writing... I’m never disappointed with Kerry Clare’s style… that kind of literary voice that feels conversational, as if what you’re reading is something you could also be hearing over lunch with a friend.

Mitzi Bytes  is no exception. You lean forward into the pages, waiting for the next thing, the next laugh (Oh my god, the No Angle tatoo!), the yes yes, I get that!,  or the next bit of outrage and when it comes you lean back, take a breath and wonder how you’ll figure it out, this problem, this mess of a situation, whatever it happens to be, because by this point you are totally signed on.

Pass the bread.

Order some wine.

Keep talking.

Clare excels at writing about the ordinary, which happens to be one of my favourite subjects. She draws the reader in with wide open, honest emotions and isn’t afraid to say this is the truth as I see it  in exactly the way you hope the best of your friends will always say things.

In Mitzi Bytes  she writes about blogging, which is really about noticing.

Sarah Lundy is someone who notices. She’s the person behind a popular blog called Mitzi Bytes. She’s also the author of some very successful books, compilations of her “domestic tales”. But it’s the blog where her notoriety lives, along with her candid, often bitchy posts, which she writes anonymously and which mostly centre around the people in her life, none of whom, including her husband, have any idea that Sarah and Mitzi are one and the same.

Until a comment comes through the site saying she’s been found out.

This is where we meet Sarah, on the verge of her world imploding. She has no idea who would want to do such a vile thing… no idea mainly because the options are many. After all, she’s made a career, literally, of mocking and judging others. (But to be fair, she has also mocked and judged herself in the process.) The *who* of this threat is only one part of the mystery the book sets out to solve. The other is how Sarah’s world became this vulnerable to attack in the first place… not to mention what, exactly, she’s hiding, protecting, and afraid of losing.

But, really, it’s about so much more. It’s about living online, the need to share every thought through a keyboard, the way of virtual friendship and the reality of remaining angry, afraid and alone IRL.

It’s about children and marriage and the effort of not losing oneself (or one’s melon baller). It’s about the history of blogging and the way history is recorded.

“She was thinking of the mother of the baby in the bathtub… Of all the men in towers supposing they were conducting the business of the world, imagining themselves to be the foundation civilization was resting upon–financial markets, circuit boards, and machine guns. Systems to which libraries of multi-volume encyclopedias had been devoted…. while women’s real lives, the stuff of life itself–blood, milk, sweat, tears, and the burn of fevered foreheads–was deemed inconsequential, or even worse, these stories weren’t acknowledged, weren’t even written down, let alone read, reviewed, history continuing on as it had ever been, delivered by the pens of men.”

And it’s about the kind of insecurity society breeds and the way the internet is a place to pretend we’re someone other than we are. Sarah Lundy represents all of us in a way, the part of us that’s just trying to clunk its way through life. What Clare does so well is show us this process in a way that we see Sarah and also see ourselves in  Sarah. We recognize the insecurity in her railing, know that it’s the frustration of powerlessness. The question then becomes: why do we give our power away?

A lovely read. And so discussable. Book club or lunch, you choose.

Mitzi Bytes is available online

at Blue Heron Books and at Hunter Street Books.

Two of my favourites. (Support indies!)

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘meatless?’, by sarah elton

 
I so enjoyed Meatless? : A Fresh Look at What You Eat…. a book (but also a really lovely, enlightening and important conversation) about eating meat or not eating meat… the choice being ours and the emphasis being on choice. (There is nothing, nothing, nothing judgy or even suggestive of one ‘side’ being righter than the other. It’s merely info.)

The author, Sarah Elton, is a well known food writer. She also eats meat, although she truly understands the ‘other’ side. This, in my view, is the ideal perspective by which to write such a book. Balanced, in other words.

It’s picture book size with loads of gorgeous illustrations by Julie McLaughlin, and tons of easy to digest info. Really the most brilliant tool to start a chat with kids about veggie-ism, before they get their ideas on the schoolyard or to clarify some already-got misconceptions.

A smattering of things of note:

♦ It was Pythagoras that came up with the germ of the idea that became veggie-ism. He felt animals were reincarnated humans.

♦ Why is meat the MAIN part of a meal? And why, in a restaurant, do we order ‘the chicken’ that comes with the lentils and asparagus…. instead of ordering the ‘lentils and asparagus’ that come with chicken?? (This one item is a whole conversation in itself in my world.)

♦ 20 million pigs are killed EACH YEAR in Canada.

♦ 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the production of meat and dairy. This is more than from cars. (Kids will love the ‘how’ of this one!)

♦ There’s a terrific section on food combos that create complete proteins (for the days you choose not to eat meat). Beans, rice, legumes… nut cheeses. All of which are equally nutritious in terms of protein, but much cheaper. Good for students and families who need to make their food dollars stretch. A few meatless days a week = money saved.

♦ From the section titled ‘Telling Your Friends and Family’, this struck me as a fair warning: “Meat eaters sometimes take offense or react defensively when they hear someone is a vegetarian…”  Equally valid, that veggie people sometimes need to stop preaching. (And this is the best thing about the book…. no defensiveness, no preaching. The message is that there’s no way to be wrong, just misinformed. And that judgment serves no purpose.)

♦ Gallo Pinto is a beans and rice dish that I want to make. The name means spotted rooster.

♦ There is a small section on animal welfare, the reality of factory farms,  overcrowded stalls, pens, and feedlots, and animals that can barely move.

And before everyone starts wringing their hands about how the wee ones mustn’t be traumatized by the truth and that surely it’s better they believe ‘meat’ has nothing to do with animals… that, instead, it arrives by pelicans, already saran-wrapped at Costco or delivered with pickles in a burger under golden arches… and that the animals that are used to create such happy ‘bargain food’ have indeed lived sunny lives… let’s remind ourselves that country children grow up knowing where meat comes from and they somehow manage to understand, and survive the info..

Tell kids the hard truth about unethical meat farming, I say. And, harder still, tell ourselves while we’re at it.

Like Elton, I’m a meat eater, though it’s not a huge part of my diet and I can easily go a week without missing it or even noticing that I haven’t eaten any. I’m not a vegetarian but I do care about where my meat comes from. I care about how the animal lived and died and I care about its food source. I care about over-production and over-consumption and waste and I continue to hope that the big players, the golden arches, the chicken purveyors and bacon mongers, will one day insist their meat suppliers follow more humane practices because, mostly, I care about responsible farming practices. I hope, too, that maybe some of us will consider the effects of supporting the alternative. And given that information, we make our choices.

That’s really what this book is about… the idea of informed choices.

Meatless? : A Fresh Look at What You Eat  can be ordered online at Hunter Street Books.

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