Scrapbook #22: It Chooses You.

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Work is busy these days, and so this week has felt long, and I’ve been despairing a little bit about my lack of time to work on Projects, although the truth is that I am currently between Projects, in that space where I’m waiting for comments on the one that’s completed and in the thinking stages of the next one, although the thinking I’m doing is more akin to daydreaming about how perfect it will be when it’s finished, and not at all about what I should do to get the damn thing actually started.

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There aren’t any leaves left on the trees. It snowed for the first time in Montreal on Thursday night, but very briefly. We went to Vermont on the weekend and there’s this route home we take sometimes that goes through the Champlain Islands. You’re driving on one long skinny road (causeway?) surrounded by water on both sides. It was windy, and despite the cold and rumours of snow, there were windsurfers out in the distance who seemed to be sailing as fast as the car. I like this drive. It makes me feel hopeful.

Miranda July reading from It Chooses You

Something else that made me feel hopeful this week was seeing Miranda July on Monday, who was in town to read from her newest book. Sarah took the picture above (and also provided me a ticket!). It was a great reading. It Chooses You is a collection of interviews Miranda conducted with strangers met from Penny Savers classified ads, but it’s also a book about creating, the Internet, feeling stuck and trying to be open to the universe and feeling silly about it, but then still stumbling upon moments that just make fantastically cosmic sense. It’s a lovely book.

Universe, I’m open to you, or whatever.

On Blue Nights

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I remember when The Year of Magical Thinking came out because I was still working for an accounting firm. I was at a client in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Business travel had seemed exotic and interesting at first, but by this point I was tired of it and tired of always getting delayed at Newark because there was always some kind of weather system passing through. There’s a lot of weather in New Jersey. One night, sick of my hotel room and the conference room I worked in, I took the rental car and drove, not quite sure where I was going, half-scared of New Jersey highways, but in desperate need of a change in scenery. Eventually I came across the mall, and in the mall there was a Barnes & Noble, and when you can’t leave a place, at least there are books. I saw the new Joan Didion on a shelf and it was such a relief. I bought it, drove to the next closest place, which I hoped would be a diner, but was McDonalds instead, ordered dinner and sat in a booth, started to read and found myself crying big tears into my fries.

Reading Joan Didion in a too bright fast food chain in the suburban depths of New Jersey is one of my favourite reading memories of my life to date. Make of that what you will.

Of course I love Joan Didion. You would be hard-pressed to find a woman with a blog, Twitter and Instagram accounts and a novel draft on their laptop who hasn’t written their own version of “Goodbye to All That” in their diaries, on their blogs or in their zines at some point. So of course I was excited about Blue Nights, bought it the day it came out, devoured it. No New Jersey, no McDonalds. Just at home.

Blue Nights is slim and spare, and so much has been written about it. Barely a week after its official release date, every angle has been covered and analyzed somewhere – her thoughts on aging and parenthood and privilege – you don’t even have to read the book to know the major images, moments, ideas. So I don’t have much to add. I was frustrated by the book at first, by how skeletal and elliptical it was. I wanted something more robust, I guess, and then found myself feeling guilty for wanting that. More. By the end of the book I felt like Didion had given more than enough. And that last page is as good and powerful as anything I’ve ever read by her. I still wish that the book had more to it (although, what exactly?), but I don’t fault her for writing it the way she did.

The book is sad, and scary in its sadness. When she writes, ““You have your wonderful memories,” people said later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the Westlake uniforms in the closet, the faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of the people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember”, this is terrifying. It’s what grief looks like.

Another Marvelous Thing

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I’ve developed a bit of an obsession. It started Thanksgiving Weekend in Burlington, Vermont. Andrew and I had stopped at a barn stuffed with old furniture, mismatched china, broken instruments and fading paintings. It was the kind of place teeming with treasures (see the picture?), and I wanted a souvenir. There was a mildewy shelf of books and I noticed a copy of Another Marvelous Thing by Laurie Colwin. I’d read her non-fiction essays about food in Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, and had enjoyed them and her down to earth, comfy writing style, and figured I would probably like her fiction too. So I bought the book for two dollars. At another bookstore later on in the day, I found A Big Storm Knocked It Over for a few bucks. That evening, back in Montreal, I started reading and one story into Another Marvelous Thing I knew I’d hit the jackpot. The next day, on a walk around the neighbourhood, I popped into S.W Welch and found Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object. It’s Colwin’s first novel, about a woman who’s husband dies in a sailing accident. As someone who’s first novel is also about a man who dies in a sailing accident, the book felt like a sign. I added it to my collection.

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And so I made my way through these books entirely too quickly. I thought it would be fun to find the rest of her bibliography in second hand bookstores on whimsical little weekend adventures, but I got impatient. I ordered more online and got them delivered to my doorstep instead. It’s hard not to read these books without mourning the fact that Laurie Colwin died unexpectedly when she was only 48. I’m trying to pace myself with the ones I have left, but it’s hard.

Colwin’s books are all about love and relationships. They’re set in New York City, although there are forays into the country – Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, upstate New York. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking in these stories: heteronormative tales, often (but not always) about privileged families (think: generations of lawyers, spacious apartments in Manhattan for the week and country homes for the weekend). The biggest appeal of Colwin’s books is how warm these stories are, how much affection you have for the characters and their flaws, how much you root for them. Characters have marriages and affairs and babies and existential crises that they often try to keep hidden from the people closest to them. They cook meals for each other. They end up, basically, happy. Her writing is crisp and plainspoken, but, as I noticed in Home Cooking, cozy. (In A Big Storm I dogearred a page with the sentence, “Brilliant red maple leaves as large as demitasse saucers floated down onto the road.”) She also has a knack for throwing in sentences and paragraphs that make you think, Yes!!. (One passage I dog-earred in Happy All The Time was “How wonderful everything tasted, Misty thought. Everything had a sheen on it. Was that what love did, or was it merely the wine? She decided that it was love. It was just as she suspected: love turned you into perfect mush.”)

My favourite book so far has been A Big Storm, but one of my favourite scenes is from her first novel. Towards the end of Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, the main character has realized that she’s deeply in love with the man that she will likely spend the rest of her life with, but despite that love, is on the verge of an affair with a man she’s just met. As a reader, you don’t doubt that she’s found her true love, but you also understand her feelings for the other man. Life, Laurie Colwin’s books say over and over again, is complicated like that. She’s just spent a few pages fretting about this dilemma, and then distracts herself by spending time with some new friends. The three of them sit by a pond, a little drunk, a little stoned, and start singing “That’s How Strong My Love Is” by Otis Redding. It’s hokey, but it’s also magical, the kind of moment that puts everything into perspective. Because, as Laurie Colwin’s books say over and over again, life is also simple like that.