a dreadful fascination

A few [not entirely precise] quotes from today’s International Festival of Authors event in Uxbridge, hosted by Blue Heron Books, where authors Jane Johnson and Laura Lippman were in lively conversation with Siri Agrell, and where the vibe was very living room, casual and writerly. The only thing missing was wine.

But, given that it was a brunch, this can be forgiven.
In no particular order, a few gems…

On writing the opposite gender and why women are better at it than men:

—The prey knows the predator better than the predator knows the prey. –Laura Lippman

—It’s less urgent for men to understand women. Historically, few men have had a female boss, for instance. —Jane Johnson

—Women have been learning to read faces since they lived in caves and stayed in groups, tending the fire, while men were out hitting things over the head. — Jane Johnson

On the secrets to success:

—Luck is what makes a book work. – Jane Johnson (meaning that’s the one thing the writer can’t control so if it doesn’t always hit the mark, don’t take it personally)

—We only make mistakes when we’re so sure we know something and don’t bother checking. – Laura Lippman

—Write a good sentence and move on. – Laura Lippman quoting Rebecca Lee

On characters:

—I once had a character change gender in the middle of a first draft. – Laura Lippman [her point, to keep writing, it’s a detail, deal with it later; first drafts are meant to allow the ‘barefoot wild child’ to just write without thinking…]

—A writer inhabits all her characters, the good and the bad ones. This is our empathy with humanity. – Jane Johnson

On process:

—When I start writing, I may know the beginning, middle and end of a book, but it’s how I get from one to the other that makes it live. – Jane Johnson

—What starts a book? A dreadful fascination. – Jane Johnson

—The danger is you can edit the life out of anything. – Jane Johnson

On publishing:

—The industry likes people who know what it is to work in an office. [versus the kookie eccentric ‘artiste’ type] – Laura Lippman

the long and worthwhile road…

—That leads to my bookseller’s door.

Please understand.

I don’t have to drive. I can call the store, phone in my order [and have, often], or place it online through the shop’s website. I can have it delivered to my doorstep—but I prefer the thirty minute drive to pick up the books in person, see how the shelves are stacked, see what’s in the windows, chat with staff about new favourites, gift ideas, book club picks, the best food in town, the latest author reading or event being held in Blue Heron’s studio space [where among this summer’s inaugural events was a Neil Flambe camp for kids with Kevin Sylvester], or just wander about neighbouring shops. It’s the kind of town where you feel encouraged to wander, discover things, where you end up getting back in your car with not only books but goat cheese, olives, pastries, fresh bread—the fixings for a perfect rest of the day.

The bookshop is merely the town’s heart. Stuart McLean named it among his ten favourites in the country.

Recently ordered, collected, or waiting for me, are Joe Brainard’s I Remember, Alice Zorn’s Ruins & Relics, Brenda Schmidt’s Grid, Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat, Alice Peterson’s All the Voices CryLorri Neilsen Glenn’s essays on poetry, Threading Light, the re-release of Sheree Fitch’s classic, Toes in My Nose, and the short story anthologies Riptides  and Bridges. 

All of which has arrived, or will, without a glitch. The phone will ring and I’ll pick a day when I need goat cheese and good bread and head out.

Lucky us for having all that.

And congratulations to Shelley Macbeth, the creative genius and owner of Blue Heron Books, who, this year, [so well deservedly] received the CBA Libris Award for Canadian Bookseller of the Year.

And thanks.

this is not a review: elle, by douglas glover

“What do you with a girl who has journeyed to the Land of the Dead (Canada), has consorted with savages, left her soul on an island inhabited by demons, given birth to a fish, disappeared into a labyrinth of dreams and turned into a bear? At best, if I return to the place I once called home, I will be a spectacle. Now I have no home nor self nor soul.” (from Elle, by Douglas Glover, Goose Lane, 2003)

When, on p.167, I reached this passage in Douglas Glover’s novel, Elle, I thought: oh, I’m so glad someone’s put things into context because for a moment I feared I might be losing my mind…  not that that would have stopped me reading. The book was, despite my confusion at times, unputdownable for its quirky take on history and its sensuous imagery mixed with perfectly pitched satirical elements.

Its shape takes the form of an anti-quest, best explained in Elle’s words:

“… You go on a journey, but instead of returning you find yourself frozen on the periphery, the place between places, in a state of being neither one nor the other. Instead of a conquering hero, you become a clown or fuel for the pyre or the subject of folk tales.”

In a nutshell:

A wealthy and young nymphomaniac slightly bored tart living in 16th century France, who has disappointed her father (seems he disapproves of rampant lustfulness), sends her to Canada on one of Jacques Cartier’s ships. On board, she’s soon at it with a handsome but seasick tennis player—mostly to distract herself from a raging toothache (a tooth later removed by tying one end of a string to it and the other to a dog named Leon, who is then encouraged to jump overboard, taking the tooth with him).

Perceived as being more trouble than she’s worth, Elle is abandoned en route on a tiny island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, along with her nurse and her lover. Soon after, they both die and she’s left alone to cope with the elements, hunger, and eventually a kind of weird dreamlike madness where she maybe/maybe not turns into a bear and maybe/maybe not gives birth to a fish. (One of the most beautiful scenes follows this ‘birth’ with Elle’s initial horror being replaced by love and the realization that the ‘creature’ will not live long; she then begins to tell it everything she knows…)

Eventually she befriends the indigenous people and ultimately comes to understand something of them, all of which leads to her transformation from acerbic child obsessed with trivialities to deeply thoughtful woman respectful of life and connected with the earth. It’s in this new, improved state that she returns to France to face a kind of culture shock of the soul.

What I loved:

Elle’s voice. She may be afraid, confused, possibly going doolally at times, but her delivery is consistent and crystal clear—casual almost—whether she’s reducing the most horrendous or inane events to brilliant satire, or being philosophical on the deepest level.

(Also loved the cover photo of a statue in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris; cover design by Chris Tompkins)

Favourite Character:

Richard, the tennis playing lover who does little more than build a tennis court (and rebuild it each time the tide goes out). He has almost no dialogue but is clearly, and cleverly, drawn by his actions; every scene with him in it made me laugh.

What I Questioned:

Possibly a few too many dreams. The story can be confusing at times—though this confusion parallels Elle’s experience, is essential, and works beautifully. However the dreams, and certainly the number of dreams, began to  detract from the surreal-ness of her experience by virtue of their mundane-ness (I mean, we all have dreams).

Three Impressions Overall:

Memorable characters. Beautifully strange journey. Smart, subtle, and delicious humour.


From the Re-Run Series: originally posted March, 2010.


—Purchase Elle online at Blue Heron Books.

this is not a review: burt’s shawarma, by kathleen winter

Rhonda has been angry and unhappy for a long time. It doesn’t help that she lives on the outskirts of a town whose claim to fame is being the nation’s teenage suicide capital “…just past the point where the Pinegate Pizza won’t deliver”. Nor does it help being married to Dan, a farmer with a soul as romantic as a milking machine. God bless him though, he’s one of those guys who thinks that duty and maintaining a roof over one’s head is enough. In his own out-to-lunch way, he tries. He’s probably in as much pain as his wife but it matters to him less or it matters in a different way. He takes solace, not in conversation, not in reaching out to her, but in immersing himself ever deeper in the work of livestock, insulation, leaks in the barn. Nothing personal… these are merely the things that matter.

Part of her knows he won’t change yet another part continues to believe he’s capable—if he tried—of finding a way in. She’s waiting for the moment where he’ll sit down next to her in his cowshit covered clothes and say to her:

“…Why don’t I get a shower and make you a cup of tea? Hoffman’s elm is like us, isn’t it? I’m sorry you’ve been lonely inside. Let me touch you? Not with my paws—with the word rain, the colour green, with eating bread and sitting here till a yellow bird comes and eats the crumbs.”

She’s starved for him to merely try. 

When Dan suspects (correctly) that Rhonda is having it off with Burt, the local ‘exotic’ who runs a Lebanese cafe, and who thinks Rhonda is perfect, he buys her tulips for Valentine’s Day. This is huge in their dry and loveless union and enough to keep it going for another painful stretch, despite her apathy.

“…she no longer cares that her vinyl toilet seat has torn pieces that stick up and prickle her butt.”

While she realizes the thing with Burt can’t last, she takes some comfort in the knowledge he can be replaced. By which logic, so can Dan, albeit with a bit more difficulty and anyway, what would be the point?

“You can tell about the state of anyone’s marriage from their medicine cabinet,” she tells her sister Bett. Her own has empty calamine lotion bottles piled in with rubbing alcohol for ears pierced fifteen years ago, ancient antibiotics, blunt useless tweezers and a stack of wrapped soaps with cobwebs on them from the Holiday Inn in 1989, which was the last time she and Dan took a trip together, and that was to bring home a trailer for getting show cattle to the fall fair. She doesn’t care about the fence Dan promised to make for her garden twenty years ago. She doesn’t care that Dan had an affair when the kids were little, or that there has never been chemistry between Dan and herself. She doesn’t even care that the magic with Burt is dying out. Bett calls him an interim phase and that’s fine by Rhonda. What matters is that her anger, her poisonous anger, has drained away, thanks to Burt. She watched her mother carry the same anger, panicked when she realized she had it too, knew one day she was mad as hell at her whole life and it looked like there was nothing she could do about it. Burt stopped the time bomb with his hideout, with its cool walls and blue shadows where she didn’t have to do things from morning till night in which she had no interest. She will feel relief deep down, be able to breathe deep down, whenever she thinks of Burt even after this is over, which it almost certainly is already, with no illusion of anything permanent. No one has mentioned Rhonda helping Burt run his cafe, but not in the same way that no has ever mentioned her helping Dan run his farm.”

— excerpts from ‘Burt’s Shawarma’, from the collection BoYs, by Kathleen Winter

Three Impressions Overall: delicious ironies, entire worlds sympathetically drawn in mere pages, and the kind of truth that makes you squirm as it pulls you forward, then leaves you pretty much where you thought you’d be left for pretty much the reasons you thought you’d be left there. Only thing that’s changed is that now you’re aware of the ‘why’. It may not feel like enough but of course, truth is always more than enough. (And may I say I love the cover of this gorgeous collection.)Note: this post first appeared in May/2011 as part of Year of the Short Story (YOSS) celebrations.

Now part of the Re-Run Series.


—Purchase boYs online at Blue Heron Books.

this is not a review: comfort me with apples, by joe fiorito


Go ahead. I dare you. Just try to read Joe Fiorito’s Comfort Me With Apples and see if you don’t end up in love. Because it’s not possible. Chap or chapette, you’ll be in love with him. I guarantee it. (Okay, I don’t guarantee it, but there’s a strong possibility…)

It’s not a new book, just newly discovered—also not exactly a cook book, nor exactly anything else; the man simply writes about food. And in such a way that I haven’t stopped cooking or eating since discovering it.

Yes, alright, another exaggeration. But it’s true that I can no longer cook or eat the same way. I mean, when in a simple essay on oranges he tells you—

“…You can put orange peel into beef stew along with your bouquet garni. You can squeeze a little juice in your fresh tomato soup; add a little orange zest while you’re at it. Or try this…peel two oranges, finely slice the peel, blanche it in boiling water for two minutes, and drain. Sautee a finely chopped onion in four tablespoons of olive oil. Add the drained peel to the oil, along with a cup-and-a-half of pitted black olives. Remove from the heat. Cook a pound of spaghetti in a pot of salted boiling water until it’s al dente. Dress the spaghetti with the olive oil mixture, add four more tablespoons of oil, and be grateful the Moors invaded Italy.”

—how can you not immediately want to put on your coat and walk to the nearest orange purveyor, purchase a dozen, make stew and soup and boil up some spaghetti, and when that just happens to change your outlook on life and entire DNA for the better…well, how can you not fall in love?

In another essay he reveals how a nun’s peculiar answer to his childhood question: What does my soul look like? led him to hate all cereal except oatmeal (and only then in the form of cookies). And then he gives you the instructions to make a batch. No recipes in this book and few precise measurements—mostly he just tells you how to do things the way he would if you were in the kitchen with him, chatting and sipping wine. And somehow things work out beautifully, the way they always do in happy kitchens.

I’ve been waiting for the perfect Sunday morning to make the popovers he describes in ‘Breakfast in Bed’—

“…Wake early one Sunday and smell the person sleeping next to you. Do it. Lean over. The side of the neck will do, just below the ear. Take a deep breath. The knowledge of this scent is lodged in the deepest part of your brain.

“…Now go to the kitchen. Throw two eggs into a bowl…”

And the perfect Friday night to re-enact his piece titled ‘A Plate of Spaghetti’, which begins:

“Today you’re going to eat, drink, sing, read—and act—Italian. I want you to start by going to the film store to rent Fellini’s ‘Nights of Cabiria’…” And ends with: “Whisper the last words of Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ as you fall asleep…all’alba vincero—at dawn I will win. And you will. You’ll have leftovers. Spaghetti arrabbiata is wonderful for breakfast.”

He writes about sushi and Halloween apples, the importance of the right knife, the woman who hummed while she ate and how he married her, how to make the best potato salad, chicken soup, pork chops (I’ve tried the chops, they’re truly amazing); he compares chili dogs to alligator shoes, discusses food myths and food in movies, considers his last meal, his worst meal, and the piece that confirmed my adoration for this man’s work, ‘Museum Food’—which is too long to transcribe but, trust me, it’s a gorgeous piece of writing and a gorgeous testament to food.

Impossible to read this book and not come away with a deeper appreciation for the connection between what we eat and how we live, between food and people, music, sights, art, books, sound, neighbourhoods, joy, sadness, seasons. (And we all know the connections are there; I can’t rub a piece of thyme between my fingers and not be transported to my mother’s kitchen where a roast is the oven on a Saturday afternoon in winter, juices heavily infused with thyme from her garden, picked fresh from under the snow.)

All of which leaves me deeply in love—okay, maybe just deeply grateful for the reminder that food isn’t so much about eating, but about everything around the eating, everything that precedes it.

And everything that follows.


Purchase Comfort Me with Apples online at Blue Heron Books.

women’s what?

I’m always stunned at the idea that people actually wander about saying things like “women’s literature” and “men’s literature”. Good glory. Who makes these distinctions? I mean is it the publishers, the media, authors, critics, readers?? And what, may I ask, is men’s literature anyway? Penthouse? (Does that even still exist? It’s been so long since I’ve perused the smutty shelf at the local Mac’s.) (Oh, and pardon me if I’m being sexist in a bad way.)

I read Kerry Clare’s excellent post today, which is what started all this off. I’ve heard, and had, these conversations before, but I think Kerry pretty well nails it when she suggests that the tag “women’s writing” has, essentially, been constructed to fill ‘a gap’.

She refers to a review by Alex Good of Lisa Moore’s novel February, in which Good says Moore is “an author of the female body.” I’m not sure what that means. The novel is about a woman who lost her husband the night The Ocean Ranger oil rig sank off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982.

I might not have been inspired to rant on this subject had I not just recently finished reading the book, and loved it.  Because what I loved about it had nothing to do with bleeding, cracked, and milk-squirting nipples (I refer again to Alex Good’s take on the book).

What impressed me was the language, the sentences, the writing for pity’s sake. And the honesty that Lisa Moore was able to tap into. As a widow, a woman, a human being trying to function among other human beings, a parent, a sister, a friend. I loved how she took us to the event and made us see it through the eyes of someone who has tried to make sense of it for twenty five years but there is no sense because The Company has never admitted their fault. Those men needn’t have died. It wasn’t about weather. It was about stupid manuals that weren’t distributed, training that didn’t happen, equipment that wasn’t in place. Moore beautifully shows the searing hopeless frustration of this through the prism of a widow’s jumbled, broken interior, in the chapter titled “The Portal”… where we learn that Helen has been playing the night of the storm over and over in her mind, imagining what might have happened, inviting us to imagine it with her, in control of every element but the final one.

The story could easily be that of a man after losing his wife/partner (just strike the squirting breasts); the human elements of emotion are the same for both sexes. But maybe that’s the problem—do we attribute emotions only to women?

And mindless car chases to men?

An over-simplification, I know. But you get the point.

Hardly seems right on either count.

I agree, of course, that certain books may have primarily women or men readers (also gay or straight readers, young or old readers, etc.) but I don’t think the authors, or their work, can (or should be) be defined by their readership—it’s often those very definitions that act as Keep Out signs to anyone else.

In the spirit of how far have we really come?, I’ll leave you with Margaret Atwood’s delicious take on the subject in a piece called  “Women’s Novels“.


Note: post first appeared in April, 2010.


—Purchase February online at Blue Heron Books.

this is not a review: the anthologist, by nicholson baker


I’ve been reading things recently about not writing as a tool for better writing, which, to me, makes perfect sense given that I believe procrastination (when handled with care) has a valuable (necessary) place in a writerly toolbox. Walks, cups of tea, headstands in the garden, rarely fail to loosen a brain (and a loose brain is a thing of envy indeed).

It’s no wonder then that I so completely enjoyed Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist where procrastination is the art form.

The narrator, poet Paul Chowder, has been asked to write the introduction to a poetry anthology and for 243 pages he lets us in on every distraction and digression that flits through his head as he avoids doing so.

Or so it appears. In fact, writing the anthology is exactly what he’s doing for 243 pages. The breakup of his relationship, badminton games next door, the comings and goings of a kitchen mouse, are merely forms of life he notices from another plane where he lives and breathes beats and rhyme and the mathematical precision of rhythm. Where everything is light and shadow. Pauses. Enjambment.

What the narrator is actually doing is tearing open the whole world of poetry as he feels it, and staring it down; this takes time. He doesn’t do it on purpose, but still it requires the kind of courage that allows you to stand back from a project, do nothing, all the while hoping to god you’ll do it in exactly the right way for exactly the right amount of time.

The end result is a delicious ‘conversation’ with the reader, full of passion and brilliance, easy humour and cheeky digs (Baker is either really good friends with Billy Collins or he hates him); it made me want to read and re-read a number of known and unknown (to me) poets, including Swinburne to see how he ruined things.

None of it is dull.

Of the Elizabethans, he says: “They really understand short words. Each one syllable word becomes a heavy, blunt chunk of butter that is melted and baked into the pound cake of the line.”

Of Sara Teasdale: “One day she hit her head on the ceiling of a taxi while it was driving over a pothole in New York, and afterward she said her brain hurt and she dropped into a funk and eventually she took morphine in the bath and died.”

When he sees endoplasm on the first page of a twenty page poem submitted by a student he says “I went cold, like I’d eaten a huge plate of calamari.”

(Chowder eventually gives up teaching as a source of income because it depresses him and drains him; he takes up house painting instead, which he finds much more agreeable.)

He talks about the link between weeping and meter, how as babies we cry in a rhythmic way we lose as we grow up. “Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing.”

And this about truth: “…you can choose to tell the truth or not to. And the difficulty is that sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because you think that the truth is too personal, or too boring, to tell. Or both. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because the truth is hard to see, because it exists in a misty, grey non-space between two strongly charged falsehoods that sound true but aren’t.

“I have no one. I want someone. I don’t want the summer to go by and to have no one. It is turning out to be the most beautiful, most quiet, largest, most generous, sky-vaulted summer I’ve ever seen or know—inordinately blue, with greener leaves and taller trees than I can remember, and the sound of the lawnmowers all over this valley is a sound I could hum to forever. I want Roz.”

I love the poetry lesson throughout, the musings on life, the soul baring honesty mixed with just the right amount of sarcasm, but mostly I love the message inherent in the structure: that sometimes procrastination, distraction and a particular kind of diddling about are the only way to loosen our brains enough to let the good stuff come through.

(~Read on the weekend in the company of sweet woodruff tea.)

(~Discovered through this post at Carol Bruneau’s Blog.)


The Anthologist is available online at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!