Books in 2014

This is only my second post of 2014, but also my last of the year – I guess it hasn’t been a very blog-y year for me. But before 2015 begins, I wanted to briefly record the books I read in 2014. I was under the impression I hadn’t read much, but as I cycled through titles in my head, I realized that there was a tidy little collection.

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I started the year off by discovering Rebecca Solnit and read A Field Guide to Getting Lost and then The Faraway Nearby and have been stockpiling her books since, saving them for the right time. I started The Faraway Nearby the day of a medical procedure and my doctor asked me if I’d been reading anything interesting and I tried explaining the book to her while woozy on drugs. I don’t think I made any sense, but I’m not sure if I would’ve been able to explain it any better under more sober circumstances.

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I read Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.  I read Bark by Lorrie Moore, and then saw her read in Toronto. Her smoky voice.

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I read Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong when things didn’t feel so great and then I wrote about it over at The Rumpus. That’s a picture of us standing on Richard Serra’s Shift.

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I read Leesa Cross-Smith’s Every Kiss a War, although maybe reread is a better word since I’ve been reading drafts of these stories or seeing them in literary magazines for almost as long as I’ve known Leesa. She has always been such an inspiring writer, the way she writes about the things she loves so perfectly: messy relationships, Kentucky, eyeliner, love love love.

I read The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood edited by Kerry Clare when I suspected I might be pregnant. I wasn’t sure because it was still too early and I could barely admit it to myself anyway. I’d been in that situation before and normally would avoid any book that might make me think directly about motherhood, but the beauty of The M Word is that it’s about all different facets, from choosing to be a mother or choosing not to, having children or not having them, the difficulties and joys of being a mother or not being one. It was a comfort to read during those days. I would be okay no matter what, I realized.

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I read most of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers on a couch in the AirBnb house we rented in Pittsburgh for a long weekend. I was still in that maybe-I’m-pregnant phase and was starting to allow myself the thought that I wasn’t imagining it. I was tired; my body felt different. Andrew went for walks around the neighbourhood and instead of joining him like I usually would, I stretched out on the couch and read the book. I will always love Pittsburgh, just for that weekend. (That’s Pittsburgh in the photo.)

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And then it turned out I was pregnant and first trimester exhaustion got the best of me, so I didn’t read much for a while. I think this is why I don’t think I read a lot in 2014, because of those weeks where I went to bed early and felt a little foggy and nauseous. In those early weeks I went on a writing retreat on the Toronto Island for a few days with Soraya, and I don’t remember what I read while I was there either. Maybe I didn’t read much of anything? I did write, though, and we had a huge classroom to ourselves. I worked on a story and she worked on an essay, and we walked around a lot, and one night we watched “Flashdance” as research for a piece she was working on. The movie definitely doesn’t count as a book but is the only thing I remember consuming while we were there, and then reading Soraya’s essay on Flashdance was something I did a few times in 2014.

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My energy and reading stamina eventually came back and I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Man in Love after spending most of the year rolling my eyes every time I heard a mention of him and his “struggles”. When I actually started reading the book, I loved it. I read the second volume first and am only now finishing the first and I have the third ready to go for the new year. I wrote about it over at The Millions, along with two other books I read this year: 10:04 by Ben Lerner (mostly read at the beach while on vacation in Charleston) and Friendship by Emily Gould. I saw Knausgaard at the IFOA in the fall and when I got my book signed I told him what I’d written in that Millions essay, that I’d found myself using his book as a pregnancy guide, and he laughed like, oh no.

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While Andrew and I were in Charleston, we took a day trip to Savannah, Georgia. The Spanish moss in Savannah is even more dramatic, and it had been raining that day so even when the rain stopped, drops kept falling off the moss like drizzle. Flannery O’Connor grew up in Savannah and they turned her house into a museum. I popped in just to have a look while Andrew took a walk, and then a tour started and since there were only 3 other people and I was the only person who had actually read her books, I realized I couldn’t duck out. The guide, who lived upstairs, locked the door and then walked us through the small rooms. On the second floor I looked out the window and Andrew was in the square below looking up at the house, slightly confused. He saw me. “What are you doing?” he asked. “I got trapped on a tour!” I said. Neither of us actually said these things, but there was a psychic exchange. The tour, in the end, was interesting. I left with a copy of A Prayer Journal, but I haven’t read it yet.

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I read a bunch of food and cookbooks for my Bookslut column. My favourites were Peter Miller’s Lunch at the Shop, Rawia Bishara’s Olives, Lemons & Za’atar, Ava Chin’s Eating Wildly and Shawn Micallef’s The Trouble with Brunch, which I got to pair together in one column.

I read Gillian Sze’s beautiful collection of poetry, Peeling Rambutan, after reading at her Toronto launch. I hadn’t done a reading in so long and was grateful that she’d invited me along; it felt good. I read stories from How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? by Doretta Lau while waiting for various doctor appointments in the late fall. I read Angie Abdou’s Between, which I enjoyed not just for the book but because it made me think thoughts about Filipino caregivers. I turned those thoughts into an essay which will be published shortly in Ricepaper Magazine. I also can’t forget Lila by Marilynne Robinson, maybe the book I was most looking forward to coming out in 2014, and of course it was the most gorgeous thing, every single word.

2014 was such a funny, memorable, intense year. 2015 will be even more so. I will keep you updated.

xoxo

Winter tally.


(View from Mount Nemo during a snowy winter hike.)

Hey, the winter is almost – not quite, but almost – over. It’s been a long season, and there have been good parts and bad parts, but I’m glad that we’ve survived it.  I’ve been keeping busy. I started a pottery class at the beginning of the year and remembered how satisfying it is to do something creative that isn’t writing.


(Bottoms of bowls that I made.)

Pottery hasn’t come to me easily; I still rely on my teacher to fix my mistakes or give me cues on what to do next, but the other day I was glazing a bunch of bowls and I could tell in which order I’d made them because they’d gotten progressively better over time. Still a little wonky, still a little too thick on the bottom, but incrementally better. That was nice – progress!


(Speaking of omens, here’s Maya pulling a Tarot card.)

But I have been writing too. My monthly Bookslut column (December, January, February, March). Some fiction that still needs lots of work. This essay on The Toast, about odds and omens and Alice Munro and Lou Reed and other things, which I wrote a draft of, sat on for a while and then finally submitted for publication. I’m glad I did; I’m glad those words are out in the world.

I hope you’re well and that you’ve been keeping warm. More soon.

Goodbye, 2013.

Towards the end of November I was plagued by a sinking feeling that 2013 was a useless year, that I didn’t have a neat little list of accomplishments I could present to the world as proof that I did something useful with my days. I know that one shouldn’t measure years like that, but I do want to acknowledge how I felt because I think it’s useful in itself. I spent the last few days in New York City and one afternoon while Andrew was looking at camera equipment at B&H, I went to a diner across the street for a chocolate milkshake. I’d just bought a fresh new notebook from MUJI and wanted to write out my plans for 2014. I was thinking about 2013, about how it had felt at times as though it had been a failure of a year, and I wondered how that had happened. There was a lot of trying in 2013, I realized. Trying and not quite succeeding, which can be construed as failure, but can also be thought of as progress. As lessons. As movement forwards, even if it was slow or painful. There’s nothing wrong with trying and failing and it’s still preferable to not doing anything. So I suppose that’s what 2013 was for me: a year of trying. That’s not so bad. And despite everything, it also had many beautiful, lovely moments, lots of trips out of the city, fun afternoons and nights with loved ones, quality time at home.

I went to the west coast and saw things like this:

And this:

I lived on the Toronto Island for a week and wrote and rode this bike around:

Maya was consistently adorable, including that one week she was miserable in a tiny cone:

One of my best friends got married:

There were weekly family dinners with these people:

And lots of good food:

I was impatient with books this year and cast many aside when they didn’t speak to me in the specific way I needed at the time. But I’ll remember how these ones affected me: The Silent House by Orhan Pamuk, A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik, Fast Machine by Elizabeth Ellen, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, The Interestings by Meg Wollitzer, The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason, Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen, Life is Meals by James and Kay Salter, A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley.

I listened to a lot of songs on repeat. Like this one by Okkervil River, or this by Vampire Weekend (or maybe I listened to this one more?). Also Michael Feuerstack. And “Blurred Lines” and “Royals”, but it’s not like I have to link those. At home we listened to records a lot, and mostly I liked Andrew playing DJ and flipping through the collection and putting the right thing on.

And so, while in my cynical moments I think nothing much happened in 2013, that’s not true. It was a memorable year. I’ll be happy to put it behind me, but I learned a lot living through it, and I’m grateful for that. I’m excited and hopeful about 2014. I have a feeling it will be a memorable one too.

Happy New Year, everyone. xoxo

 

Fall, pt 1: Music and books

Before I forget.

1. On one of the first truly cold evenings of the fall, we went down to Christie Pits where Julie Doiron was playing an outdoor set. It was dark and chilly and we stood high up on the hill, a bit set apart from the small crowd. The guitars were loud. We stayed until we were too cold, walked back to the car as the music slowly receded in the distance. Warmed up again. It feels like a dream when I think of it now.

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2. I found out Okkervil River were playing in Toronto a few hours before they went on stage. They’re the kind of band that inspires fawning devotion, and I fall into that camp, despite not being up to date with their touring schedule. But I was already downtown for dinner and a movie, and then instead of going back home with Andrew, I dropped him off and drove to the concert instead, arrived just as the opening act was winding down. Seeing music I love alone is one of my favourite things. I wedged my way near the front, in the middle, and stood with other fans who sang along enthusiastically, so I sang along too. That feeling of leaving a club, your ears cotton-y, the night air perfectly crisp and silent, was always something I liked best about going to shows and I remembered it when I walked out afterwards holding the new album under my arm.

3. Andrew surprised me with tickets for us to see Rufus Wainwright at Roy Thompson Hall, and it was sweet of him because he barely tolerates his music. But the concert was a special one with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and the venue was nice, and we had nice memories of seeing him together in Greece. There was an opera singer, and the entire symphony, and Rufus occasionally flubbed a note or stopped everyone so they could begin again, promising that it would be better the second time around.

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4. I’ve been reading books either in large gulps or not at all. If I don’t swallow the entire thing whole, it languishes in the growing stack by my bed for weeks, and there are only particular things that capture my attention these days, it seems. I read Stacey May Fowles Infidelity late into the night despite having to get up early for work the next day. I read Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home over two consecutive mornings on the long weekend, staying in bed later than I’d like to admit. I read Molly Wizenberg’s Delancey a little greedily, so excited to have it before it was officially out in the world. And then most recently, The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller, a retelling of The Illiad from the perspective of Patroculus, Achilles’ beloved. Finished it on a lazy Sunday afternoon, sniffling in bed when it got to the inevitable ending.

5. I’ve also been playing a lot of Candy Crush. Help.

Summer, part 5: A pause.

Vancouver & around

For a few days towards the beginning of the summer I truly thought I would get a lot of writing done, that I would somehow cobble together a rough-rough-rough draft of the novel I’m working on. But summer’s over and, oops, I am nowhere near that; I didn’t even come close. It’s okay, though.

I’ve had a kind of psychological shift in how I approach/think about my writing recently. When I decided to get “serious” about fiction, I was in my mid-twenties and I wrote almost maniacally to meet internal deadlines I’d set in my head. I wrote and wrote and wrote and I sent out stories before they were ready and I took workshops and classes and sometimes I was lucky to get published, and then, a few years later, I was so incredibly lucky to find an amazing publisher that believed in my stories and helped me form them into something more solid for the public. After it came out I continued to write and write and write and after a few years (ugh, years? really?), I completed a novel that I still dearly love: my first long work, something I’d never put so much thought and time and effort into. Since its completion, it’s been in limbo – my agent is doing behind the scenes work and I’ve gotten some nice rejections, but as any writer knows, a nice rejection is still a rejection. Books are hard to get published. At this point I’m not sure what else to do about it other than wait, patiently, and keep writing and writing and writing like I did before.

Which sounds like a good plan, except for a while I just stopped writing. It was weird. I went from being someone who was annoyingly productive to… not at all. I wondered if I really cared so much about writing? I’d always thought that the thing I wanted to be most in the world was writer and then I realized that maybe it wasn’t what I wanted, and what was it instead? And what if whatever else I wanted to be was also some kind of unattainable goal?  Everyone faces this at some point and I suppose my turn was up. So I stopped writing, but I was busy figuring out other things in my life: I was moving cities, I was changing roles at work, I was seeing doctors, I was spending time with friends, I was being lazy, I was going through things that ate into the psychological space writing used to take up in my life.

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Summer, part 4: Vacation.

Vancouver & around

1.  We flew across the country and rented an apartment on the west side of Vancouver. Its layout was so similar to my first ever apartment in Toronto that in the middle of our first night I woke up blurry-eyed, briefly convinced that I was actually on Spadina Road and that it was still 2005. But there were seagulls shrieking – I’ve never heard them so loud! – and I remembered that years had passed and that I wasn’t home.

In Vancouver we walked along the ocean, drove towards mountains, stopped at beaches that had the biggest trees washed up on shore. Hiked in Lynn Valley Canyon and took off our shoes and socks to wade in cold mountain water. Got sushi and ate it on the roof of the apartment. On Granville island we bought 2 Dungeness crabs to eat later for dinner. They cooked and cracked them and while we waited we had fish tacos.

Mostly I just wanted to look out at the water, the hazy bits of land in the distance. Twice, while staring, we saw seals.

Vancouver & around

Vancouver & around

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2.  We set off for Portland early one morning and somehow stretched the 6 hour drive into 14 hours. We kept telling each other, this is the last time we’ll stop, but then we would see something and stop again. At first it was all green and rivers. We stopped to buy a basket of plums for a dollar, to have a burger and milkshake from a diner at lunch, to climb down a hill and dip our feet into a river. We kept driving and passed a town that was modelled to look like a Bavarian Village. Stopped at another roadside market that promised fresh peach milkshakes, and despite the milkshake at lunch, couldn’t pass one up. Got huckleberry candy, apples. Kept driving and then suddenly the trees dropped away and instead there were large fields. The green dissipated and everything was shades of yellow. Windfarms, handfuls of horses running in the distance, black cows. Stopped to look at all of them. Then there was a replica of Stonehenge and the Columbia river. Eventually it got dark and we got serious about making it to Portland. We got there.

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3.  In Portland, it did feel like Portlandia. Food truck breakfast sandwiches, good coffee, farm-fresh food, pinball at the bar, books from Powell’s. At night we would walk from our place to our next destination and it would be quiet and dark and then suddenly there would be another bar, another coffee shop, just right there on some unassuming corner.

One day we drove down to the Oregon coast and I had naively assumed we could go swimming, but when we arrived the Pacific was freezing and the waves roared up on shore, fierce and beautiful. We ate our lunch and walked along the edges of the water instead,  followed the coast for as long as we could.

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4.  We had just about 24 hours in Seattle. Had oysters at the Walrus and the Carpenter and pizza at Delancey and when we were stuffed, we went to the beach at sunset. It was lined with people having end-of-summer bonfires.  The next morning we were tired from more than a week of travelling and covering ground and almost wanted to skip the downtown core, but persisted: walked from the Sculpture Park to Pike Place Market and decided to go the aquarium to look at the sea otters.

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5. Drove back to Vancouver quickly, this time actually not stopping a million times, and had one last sushi meal before flying back home.

It was a lovely, lovely trip.

Summer, part 3: Trips.

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Realized that it has been a summer of little day trips and weekends. One of the nice things about moving back has been exploring areas around Toronto that I haven’t been to for years or just never got around to visiting, particularly in the U.S. These might not be the most glamorous of locations, but there’s always something to see, something to do, something to give you context. It helps if you enjoy long car drives and the process of getting there rather than just being in your final destination. I mean, radio + gas station snacks + farmstands – it’s easy.

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Summer, part 2.

Before I forget.

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Summer continues. Some herbs and cherry tomatoes from the little garden outside. Andrew continues to work on our backyard and every day it changes a little. A quick trip to Kingston for the weekend with a walk in the forest, a day on Wolfe Island, diner breakfasts and bowling at night. Some baking.

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So many festivals in Toronto. The National one night, Sarah Harmer in the afternoon the next day. Fairs at the park down the street and garage sales every Saturday morning. Four rose bushes for our four year wedding anniversary. A cat who tolerates walking outside on a leash and cries wide-mouthed when we’re outside and she’s not. Iced coffee, reading in the park. The best season.

Summer, part 1.

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The first summery weekend of the year feels like a triumph of sorts, like we have made it, we have survived the winter and the cold and the early nights and this is our reward, these long, glorious days, nevermind the occasional rain shower. There’s something about the extended days that makes everything a little lighter, a little easier. This weekend there was sangria, treasures purchased at various garage sales all over the neighbourhood, art on display in parks, an apricot cake and a rhubarb crumble, the first farmer’s market visit of the year, iced coffees, home renovations (let’s be honest: I didn’t participate in those as much as I cheered from the sidelines and baked), walks on the beach, family visits. After some scary news, I am even more aware of how precious this is, how important it is to squeeze as much goodness as you can out of these days, and how much I plan on doing that this summer.

Postcard from Gibraltar

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For the past week I’ve been on the Toronto Islands at Artscape Gibraltar Point. I had a bedroom and, just around the corner from it, a little studio with a desk, a lamp and a large window looking out into the yard behind the building. I brought with me a backpack of groceries, my laptop and a stack of books, and promptly got to work.

It’s been awhile since I’ve spent a large chunk of time dedicated to writing and I’ve actually never done a retreat like this. It was slightly daunting; I was worried I would waste my time, that a week would pass and I would have nothing to show for it. One of the reasons why I chose Artscape was because of its proximity to Toronto – I didn’t have to travel very far to feel removed from my every day life, but I also wasn’t in such a foreign place that I felt like it was a waste to spend my days locked up in a room when I could be exploring.

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But the Toronto Islands are beautiful, and I couldn’t help explore them. Gibraltar Point backs onto the beach, and it was so comforting to walk onto the sand, dip my feet into the cold water and look at Lake Ontario stretch out into the distance. And, after years of letting an irrational bike phobia get the best of me (i.e. I didn’t bike once in Montreal! What!), I got over it and biked all over the place. About twice a day I would take a break and circle around, sometimes down to the pier to buy a Coke and then read on a picnic bench, once to eat an entire Funnel Cake by myself in Centreville (je ne regrette rien), sometimes over to Wards Island to look at the houses or have an iced coffee at the Island Café. Andrew visited once on the weekend and we had a barbecue by the water, lamb and asparagus and potatoes and rose. It was nice.

My time here was low key and peaceful. I perpetually had sand in my shoes. I saw flocks of cormorants flying low above the lake and I got hissed at by Canadian geese guarding their goslings. But I spent most of my time at my desk, typing or thinking about typing. I kept to myself and got into that headspace where talking to others made me feel a little tongue tied. We’re responsible for our own meals here, so I would sometimes bump into people in the kitchen and it was good to have little conversations then, to remove myself from my bubble and hear about what others were working on.

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I won’t lie, there were many, many Internet breaks. I tried not to feel guilty about them because I do think I need idle time to think things through. I trust in my subconscious mind to work problems out while my active mind does other more inane things. I guess I could’ve taken more walks on the beach, but one of the biggest challenges in writing is just keeping your butt down on a chair. I knew that if I sat there long enough, eventually I would write something. And I did. In the end, I got 20,000 new words down, and while I have no idea if they’ll make it into the second draft, I almost doubled what I started off with.  Plus, it’s more than anything I’ve written in the past 6 months, so that has to count for something. There’s also something about crossing the 45,000 word mark in a book that makes you feel like you’re in it for the long haul.

I came into this week uncertain of the trajectory of the book. I had vague ideas of where I wanted it to go, but making the leaps from point A to point B alluded me. And they still do, but I’ve started building little bridges between them. There’s also pleasure in writing something completely new. I came prepared with some ideas and thoughts I wanted to flesh out, and while I worked on those, I wrote other parts that I hadn’t even considered. One particularly long section was a pleasant surprise, how naturally it flowed out.

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But mostly: writing, ugh, what a slog.  Because I was more concerned about getting words down on paper, I was highly aware of just how not-so-pretty they were as I was typing them out. My goal was to capture feelings and tones, to create a skeleton that I could return to later and fill in. Sometimes foundations aren’t the prettiest of objects. You’re working on a shitty first draft, I told myself, it’s okay. Promise.

While longer than a week here would have been great, at this point I think it was just the right amount of time – any more and I would’ve started to flounder. There’s a lot of percolating involved with long pieces, and while I’d hoped to work on other things in the meantime – I could write a story, I figured– I soon realized that I was too into this particular groove to break out of it.

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I wrote this essay, though, on my food blog. I wrote it the day I arrived, slept on it, then posted it in the morning. Maybe it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to write about publicly, but it was. I’m still figuring out ways to write about this.

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Anyway, my biggest regret was not bringing enough fiction for pleasure books. My new novel is about a photographer, so I had a bunch of photography books for reference and ideas, and while they were enjoyable, they weren’t always what I felt like reading. I had Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings on my iPhone, and while I’ve read many books on my phone, there was something about it that didn’t quite feel right when I was sitting by the water or under a tree. I wanted a real book, with actual pages.

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But, if my only regret was not lugging an additional hardcover book with me, I think I can conclude that this week was a success.  Thanks, Artscape.

(Pictures taken from my Instagram account: 1) Various lakeside scenes. Sigh, dreamy. 2) Toronto in the distance. 3) My bike in its rusted glory. 4) One of the houses on Ward’s Island, shrouded in foliage. 5) A lovely painting by a painter I met working here this week. 6) The glorious trees! 7) Hallway still life.)