Every year I seem to forget how much I love December, how it’s consistently one of the best months. This December has been especially fun, weekends full of get togethers with friends and family, shopping for the holidays (and myself, let’s be honest), baking cookies, a roadtrip outside the city. Toronto is strangely warm, but the house feels Christmas-y. We won’t be here over the holidays, but there is a little string of lights, a single garland along the fireplace, a few branches clipped from my parents’ yard in a vase for a mini-tree. I also love December because I enjoy looking back at the year that just passed, figuring out the narrative of it. Mostly we bob along, living, forgetting that if you look hard enough you can see progressions or shifts. In some ways 2012 has been a year of revelations, and I want to write about it here, but first I want to record what books I read because that tells its own story too.
In my more cynical moments, when considering the artist-creation continuum, I think the thing I’m best at, and that I should stick to, is being a fan. The one who consumes, digests, adores, cheers. Not a creator, not a critic, but simply a fan. Of course when I’m feeling more optimistic I hope I can be all three, that each role informs the other. Every writer I know constantly beats themselves up for not writing enough, for not trying as hard as they should be. We have such high hopes and standards and still, we’re never doing every single thing we could be doing. In fact, I just wrote an email with this closing line: i guess i didn’t write much this weekend :/ Being a fan is sometimes a relief. I know what to do and I’m good at it. I’m a completist, I’m a little obsessive, I like to tell people about the things I like. These are all good qualities in a fan, and I sometimes wonder if I’ll grow out of my fangirlish tendencies, but I’m firmly ensconced in my thirties, and while I maybe don’t go to the same lengths I used to, that same urge is still there.
It’s Blue Metropolis time here in Montreal, and after almost skipping the entire thing, ended up thoroughly enjoying the two events I attended. First I spent an hour on a rainy Saturday afternoon watching a bunch of readers crowded into a small gallery space. The highlight was Tamara Faith Berger, who’s book I had just finished the day before. It had been awhile since I’d attended a reading, and I forgot the kind of charge that comes along with watching writers read from their work. I came home inspired and ready to get back to writing seriously again.
At the last minute I decided to see Joyce Carol Oates. She’s such a huge literary figure and I imagined that someone who has written 70 books could only be stern and, frankly, terrifying. I showed up at the Grand Bibliotheque de Montreal naively expecting to buy tickets at the door only to realize that the event was sold out. Oops. But, just like that, a stranger appeared with a ticket she no longer needed. “Um, I’ll take it,” I said, and then she even shook her head when I took out my wallet to pay.
The interview between Oates and Eleanor Wachtel (a voice that I’m more accustomed to hearing in the car on a Sunday afternoon, not on stage and coming from an actual body), was one of the most fascinating literary events I’ve attended. Unlike my original assumption, Oates was warm and humble. She spoke, amazingly, in fully formed paragraphs. She talked about things like raising chickens when she was a child, the long series of cats she’s had in her life, why places like Niagara Falls inspire suicide, the habits of couples where one or both partners are writers, the myth of Medusa or the concept of an eclipse as ways of explaining the purpose of art, her family and the seeds of many of her novels. Thank you, stranger, for that ticket.
On the topic of books, I’ve read many in the past few months that I’ve enjoyed and meant to write about. It feels too daunting to write about them now, so I dipped into the pile by my bed and had a look at the pages I’d dogeared during my reading. For reference, these are a few things I marked:
From Zona by Geoff Dyer, a shot by shot description of Tarkovsky’s movie, Stalker, which I’ve only seen (maybe?) 15 minutes of. I liked the book a lot, though.
But perhaps that is and always will be one’s deepest wish: to have the terms of the offer slightly amended so that it can be retrospectively applied, to build a time machine, to go back and have another go, another punt, another throw of the dice, this time knowing the result in advance. The question, I suppose, is this: is one’s deepest desire always the same as one’s greatest regret? (Geoff Dyer then goes on to discuss how, if so, his greatest regret is that he’s never had a three-way.)
From The Secret Lives of People in Love by Simon Van Booy (a collection of short stories set in Paris, Rome, Kentucky, Greece – basically every place I am a sucker for reading about):
A filthy homeless man is squatting with the American tourists and telling jokes in broken English. He is not looking at the girls’ shaved legs but at the unfinished bottle of wine and sullen wedge of cheese. The Americans seem good-natured and pretend to laugh; I suppose the key to a good life is to gently overlook the truth and hope that at any moment we can all be reborn.
The Pont des Arts is wooden, and if you look through the slats, you can see boats passing beneath. Sometimes small bolts of lightning shoot from the boats as tourists take pictures of one another, and sometimes they just aim and shoot –I like these kinds of photographs best, not that I have a camera–but if I did, I would randomly take pictures of nothing in particular. How else could you record life as it happens.
A tiny, perfect phrase from Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead, which is actually a big, raw book about teenaged girls and sex and obsessions and finding oneself. Top notch subjects, all of them:
I’d be more than an open book too. My spine would crack, I’d fall out in halves.
From The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, which I mostly read curled up on the couch at the apartment I stayed in Manila:
When you’re young – when I was young – you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality. Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become. You want them to tell you that things are OK. And is there anything wrong with that?
(I also read The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, which I especially enjoyed because I was at the height of my Downton Abbey phase, and was only interested in reading about British families, the rich ones and the not so rich ones. Alan Hollinghurst is a master, and I’m sure I highlighted excerpts from the book, but I read it on my Kindle, and my Kindle is now out of batteries and I can’t find the charger. Real books 1, e-books 0.)
From Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking the PCT shortly after her mother’s death. I was a fan of Cheryl Strayed before I even knew her name, one of the legions of people who gulped down her anonymous Dear Sugar column over at The Rumpus. Her writing is a kind of magic.
I lay back and closed my eyes and let my head sink into the water until it covered my face. I got the feeling I used to get as a child when I’d done this very thing: as if the known world of the bathroom had disappeared and become, through the simple act of submersion, a foreign and mysterious place. Its ordinary sounds and sensations turned muted, distant, abstract, while other sounds and sensations not normally heard or registered emerged.
I had only just begun. I was three weeks into my hike, but everything in me felt altered. I lay in the water as long as I could without breathing, alone in a strange new land, while the actual world all around me hummed on.
2011 is coming to a close, and I’m in year-in-review mode. 2011 was a quiet year, a foundational one, I think, but I’m ready to launch into 2012 and leave this one behind.
My only writing-related goal was to work on my novel, and I did a lot of that. But how exactly do you measure whether or not it’s been a good or bad year for your own writing? I didn’t publish anything new (just a reprint of an older story). I wrote a lot, although it was front-loaded; I’ve barely written anything in the past two months. But, I did work hard in the first half of 2011 – Sunday afternoons at the kitchen table, typing and rereading and marking up drafts. It was satisfying and I’ve been missing that feeling and am looking forward to establishing a routine like that in the new year. And I had so many other great writing-related experiences: the QWF Mentorship, some fun readings, an evening at the Danuta Gleed awards. I’m happy to be represented by the HSW Literary Agency, which is something I didn’t think was possible a year ago. 2011, you weren’t so bad!
My favourite things I read were Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It by Geoff Dyer (or any of his books, really), The Keep by Jennifer Egan, 8 by Amy Fusselman (why didn’t I write about this book here? It was amazing), The Chairs Are Where the People Go by Sheila Heti and Misha Glouberman, all those issues of The New Yorker that I read in the food court at lunch time, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, It Chooses You by Miranda July, The Wife by Meg Wolitzer. And all of that Laurie Colwin. Sigh.
I was also inspired by so many of my friends this year. Lesley published her first book of poetry and started making serious headway on a non-fiction book. Samantha let me read the first draft of her novel, and I’m excited for the rest of the world to read her words. Soraya, late in the year, decided to get started on a memoir and has blown me away with how dedicated and productive she’s been, even if she doesn’t realize it herself. Leesa started getting published all over the place and knows exactly when to send me stories of hers that break my heart in the best way. Liz and Laura wrote a book about the Beatles and then published some of the essays as zines that are just… mind-blowing. I read one of Darcie’s new stories and it made me cry. Lindsey finished her MFA thesis! Kat always had wise words about the writing process, and Esme wasn’t afraid to let us into the hard parts. I am grateful for these ladies, to witness people I know slogging it out with words and not giving up and supporting each other.
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.
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.
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.
Last night Andrew and I saw Mike Leigh’s latest film, Another Year, and when we emerged from the theatre I said, “Mike Leigh is one of my favourite filmmakers.” I said it emphatically. I really, really meant it. Andrew replied, “You’ve only seen two of his movies, Teri.” He was being reasonable – saying someone is a “favourite” when you’ve only scratched the surface of their work is a bit much, admittedly, but he’s used to these kinds of grand pronouncements from me. Being a fan is such a big part of my identity, and once I have an inkling of liking something, I like it a lot and I like it forever. (Recent examples: this; the fact that I’ve been stubbornly listening to the new R.E.M. album all week despite it being just, eh, okay.)
At the end of 2010 I reminded myself to read more books by Geoff Dyer. After writing that post, I suddenly started seeing his name everywhere (for example: here, here and here.) Was the universe telling me to get off my ass and read his books? Not quite. He has a new book coming out in March: I was being lured in by a well timed promotional blitz. Still, I wondered, what was I waiting for?
Looking for Geoff Dyer’s bibliography is the closest you come to getting a work out in a bookstore. The Ongoing Moment, about photography, is in art criticism. But Beautiful is in music history, in the tiny, dusty section of books about jazz. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a novel. I’ve seen Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It classified as “travel adventure”. Out of Sheer Rage, which is kind-of-but-not-really about D.H. Lawrence could be literary criticism, but is more memoir. I guess this is why he tends to be described as “genre defying”.
Happy New Year, everyone. I hope you had relaxing holidays, that you ate and drank well, that you spent an entire day in your pj’s at least once. I was in Toronto over Christmas, and did exactly that, which meant that I didn’t see much more than my parents’ house and some close friends. I came down with a cold, but luckily (or not?) it was the kind that didn’t affect my appetite, so there was lots of baking too. Lesley gave me a copy of the Gourmet Cookie Book, and it’s full of interesting recipes – not one single chocolate chip cookie! – and I would like to bake my way through it. It’s an interesting read, too, since it picks one cookie recipe per year, so you can see the progression of cookies in America from 1941 onwards. Continue reading
In my last year of high school we were assigned to read Catcher in the Rye for English class and it really clicked. Obviously. I was angsty; I understood. Our English teacher had transferred from another school, and on his first day told us that he liked to incorporate drama elements into his English classes. Oh lord. Even though I had loved drama as a child (little known fact about me: I took acting classes when I was in middle school!), teenage angst had upped my melodrama quotient, but erased any love of drama of the theatre variety. Our teacher parcelled out sections of the book and made each of us read them to the class. This must have been hilarious to witness: kids putting on their acting voices and reciting Caulfied monologues? Oh lord, again. I remember one boy morally objected to Salinger’s use of profanity, but had gotten assigned a particularly f-bomb laden section. He replaced them with “fudge”. Can you believe it? Holden saying “fudge you”?! Amazing.
When I think of Catcher in the Rye, I think about how it’s one of the great unifiers of books. So many people have read it: people who have only read four books in their lives because they were forced to in high school, people who morally object to cursing, students of all social classes. We read it as part of my accounting firm book club a few years ago, even. And among all these people, you either hate it or love it, get it or don’t, and I’ve had many conversations with people on both sides of the fence. There aren’t many books that you can discuss like that.
I hold the Glass family a little closer to me. I don’t want to debate their oddities with the whole world; I’d rather bask in them by myself. I read the Glass family books one summer when my father was working in Greece. My mother and I visited him when I finished school for the year. He was living in a small town in Northern Greece. I was used to the dry, brittle landscape of Athens in the summertime, not the greenery of the mountains. I would lay in the cot set up for me, the door open for a breeze, the mountains visible in the distance, listen to my walkman and read about this family, all these kids and the things they said, so different from my life. And sometimes it’s the books you read when you’re on vacation and far away from home that stick with you the most. Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories, Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction, those stuck and still cling.
January has been a terrible month for deaths and I’ve felt more sorrow for Haiti, for Paul Quarrington and Kate McGarrigle’s passings from cancer, than I have for ol’ J.D, a 91 year old who has not participated in society for longer than I’ve been reading his books. I can’t help but feel guilty for focusing on him, but for someone who’s favourite genre of anything is “coming of age” I don’t know how I could not. So, rest in peace, J.D. Salinger, and thank you.
I have always been a “fan”, the kind of person who listens to the same song over and over, who will read entire bibliographies in a three month span, who will write fan letters, mail them off and hope for a response. I’ve learned that not everyone is like this. These days I indulge in the first two activities, but not so much the last. I don’t remember the last time I wrote a fan letter. Does one write fan letters anymore? I imagine that these days pre-teen girls write emails to the Jonas Brothers or send Myspace messages instead. There is probably a better chance of getting an @ reply on Twitter than there is of getting a letter that requires an envelope and postage. As a child I spent a significant chunk of time writing to my celebrity idols, researching their addresses in the back pages of Teen Beat. I wrote to Kirk Cameron and when I considered the chances of actually hearing from him, I hedged my bets and also wrote to Tracey Gold and requested a signed photo from the entire Growing Pains cast, which would be almost as good as getting an autograph from Kirk alone. I wrote to Alyssa Milano and asked her about her prom and I wrote to Tiffany a few times as well. What was it like touring with the New Kids anyway? I never heard back from any of these celebrities, not even a printed glossy headshot, and I’m sure I remembered to include a SASE. I don’t blame them; they were busy getting sucked into the Hollywood machine or finding their version of God. But, let me tell you who I did hear from: authors.
I was equally devoted to the writers of my favourite books as I was to the actors in my weeknight syndicated sitcoms. You couldn’t find authors’ addresses in teen mags, but you could find their publishers at the front of their books. I wonder what I wrote to these people. Something chatty, I think, like writing to an absent cousin or long distance lover. I picked up cues from Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw, figured I could spill my guts about my life and my problems. I wanted to be a writer too. Do you have any tips? I asked.
My parents are packrats of the highest order and I’ve inherited this trait, except I’m lucky that they live in a big a house in the suburbs of Toronto where I can store my crap forever and ever and continue giving the illusion that I live in a carefully curated home in Montreal. One of my favourite things about visiting my parents is digging through these endless piles of papers, incredulous at the stuff I used to think and keep. This past weekend I opened a box in my old desk and found something wonderful: responses from two of my favourite authors when I was ten years old, Judy Blume and Ann M. Martin.
1990. I was in the fifth grade. I was going through a phase where I was shedding my less cool friends for the more popular kids. I was an asshole, forgive me. But I was reading the Baby Sitter’s Club and practicing personalities the way I practiced handwriting.
Found in an old notebook, me trying out each of the baby sitter’s handwriting. Stacey’s writing, with the i’s dotted with hearts and slanted s’s and e’s appealed to me most, followed by Mary Ann’s flowy cursive.
I stole my favourite characteristics from each of the girls: I got a perm, but it gave me a triangle shaped head rather than the look of a New York sophisticate. I wore a black and white leopard print dress with fringe to class pictures. Claudia Kishi would approve. I was kind of Asian exotic like her, maybe? But I wanted to be a good student too, and nice, like Mary Ann. Nah, I just wanted her boyfriend, Logan. Either way, I paid close attention. I read Judy Blume a bit differently – she wrote about stuff I didn’t talk about out loud. At the time we weren’t quite open about things like wanting to have bigger breasts or getting our periods. We joked about it, whispered it at sleepovers, but we didn’t reveal how crucial it was. Margaret, on the other hand, was so brazen about these quiet desires. And friend politics were discussed perfectly in “Just As Long As We’re Together”. I understood. I wrote to Judy and Ann and one day I got replies from them.
JUDY BLUME vs. ANN M. MARTIN
The form letter: On first glance, Ann’s letter looks genuine. It’s printed on a dot matrix, like she typed it up at her desk and then printed it out for me. Dear Teri, it begins, thank you so much for your letter! But, as you read on, it screams fanletter_template.doc. She told me she was born in 1955. At the time it made her 34 years old and she lived in New York City , unmarried, with a cat. She flipped through Name Your Baby books for name ideas, and her first book, Bummer Summer, took 3 years to write. Sure, great.
Judy’s letter came a few months letter when I was in the thick of grade six, March 1991. She didn’t hide the fact that her fans got the same letter. It was pre-printed, her picture with a copyright mark in tiny print along the side. Hi: she starts. She anticipates her questions. “Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself” is my most autobiographical book. Okay.
The brush-off: Ann hides it in a P.S. at the end of the letter (“As much as I love hearing from you, I must tell you that I just don’t have time to answer those letters.”) She included a photo of herself wearing a smart looking sweater and fake pearls, buried in a pile of letters.
Once again, Judy was more direct. After some pleasantries, she says in the second sentence: I wish I could write to you individually but then I’d never have the time to finish another book.
The personal touches: Ann signed her letter. See the smudge? 10 year old Teri was skeptical enough to lick her finger and test out the veracity of the pen ink. It was real. That was cool. But you know what was even cooler? I sent a story to Judy – I don’t remember what story it was, but I do remember including fiction – and look, Judy acknowledged it!
Loved your story! she scrawled at the bottom of the form letter. And the writing matches the printed signature so she must have written it herself. If Judy Blume “loved” my story, maybe I had a chance of writing better stories, stories that would be loved by other people.
So, in the fan letter department Judy edged out Ann. Also, Ann’s envelope came with a little note from the post office: Postage Due: 10 cents. What a scatterbrained Claudia move! Luckily the post office waived the 10 cents and I got my letter regardless.
THE BITTER TRUTH
I will be honest, at the time these letters disappointed me. I remember the excitement of an envelope in the mail followed up by a feeling of “that’s it?” The problem with being a fan is that you will invariably be let down: your idol will never love you as much as you love them. How can they? They haven’t listened to your songs for an hour straight; they haven’t copied passages of your writing into their own notebooks. You will be disappointed until you grow older and learn that the best thing about being a fan is how having a deep engagement with a piece of art – whether it’s a song or a serial novel about a group of girls starting a slave-labour wage baby sitting club – gives your life a secret, lovely depth, how cultivating an inner life populated with fictional characters will stave off loneliness for an awfully long time. Twenty years later (seriously? twenty?), I’m thoroughly tickled by these responses from Ms. Martin and Ms. Blume, pleased that someone on their staff printed off a letter for some kid in suburban Toronto and dropped it in the mailbox.
But I don’t write fan letters anymore because I know better.
(I will, however, probably blog about you or friend you on Twitter. Old habits die hard.)