I have a job doing research. I love it because I learn lots of random facts, and sometimes, for the space of a research paper, or a chapter, I get immersed in another world. Take for example the creation of the Catholic diocese of Winnipeg. Right now, it doesn’t feel like all that big of a deal. But in 1915, when it happened, it was in the tense atmosphere of Irish Catholics demanding more attention, a loss of power and finance for the French Catholics and the first time that Rome acted so decisively in creating an independent diocese.
Nellie McClung had no sympathy for the 1919 Winnipeg Strike. She visited the city, interviewed some strikers and took notes for an article she didn’t end up publishing. I wrote an essay proving that she was friends with J.S. Woodsworth but that they had very different views on the strike and the World War. Why didn’t McClung sympathize with the strikers? In part because she couldn’t understand how desperate their situation was, and in part because she came from a family of farmers. Authors have argued that the farmers and the workers on strike largely remained separate.
I’m starting to enjoy newsletters as much as blog posts… The two that spur me on to write are Austin Kleon and Craig Mod.
How to start: This year marks the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville and the internet is abuzz with its commemoration. This doesn’t take-away from the fact that Moby Dick felt like a challenging read. Bryan Waterman’s Top 5 Bits of Advice for First-Time Readers of the book might have been helpful. As it was, an allusion to Melville’s being inspired to write better after studying Shakespeare was impetus enough to get me to work. Fortunately Melville is full of humour and that’s what I’d like to share in the quotes below.
Favourite quotes: No man prefers to sleep two in a bed. In fact you would a good deal rather not sleep with your own brother. I don’t know how it is, but people like to be private when they are sleeping. And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger, in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooner then your objections indefinitely multiply. (p 27)
“Just as you please; I’m sorry I can’t spare ye a table-cloth for a mattress, and it’s a plaguy rough board here” - feeling of the knots and notches. “But wait a bit, Skrimshander; I’ve got a carpenter’s plane there in the bar - wait, I say, and I’ll make ye snug enough.” So saying he procured the plane; and with his old silk handkerchief first dusting the bench, vigorously set to planning away at my bed, the while grinning like an ape. The shavings flew right and left; till at last the plane-iron came bump against an indestructible knot. The landlord was near spraining his wrist, and I told him for heaven’s sake to quit - the bed was soft enough to suit me, and I did not know how all the planing in the world could make eider down of a pine plank. (p 27)
Next: how shall we define the whale, by his obvious externals, so as conspicuously to label him for all time to come? To be short, then, a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail. There you have him. However contracted, that definition is the result of expanded meditation. (p 111)
The fact is, that among his hunters at least, the whale would by all hands be considered a noble dish, were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite. (p 230)
(…) he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional innoffensiveness by all to all. (p 270)
Applied to any other creature than the Leviathan - to an ant or a flea - such portly terms might justly be deemed unwarrantably grandiloquent. But when Leviathan is the text, the case is altered. Fain am I to stagger to this emprise under the weightiest words of the dictionary. And here be it said, that whenever it has been convenient to consult one in the course of these dissertations, I have invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased for that purpose; because that famous lexicographer’s uncommon personal bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author like me. (p 334)
How to start: I confess I really enjoyed this book. I brought it along during a three-week vacation and loved slipping away from the rudimentary demands of camping to a world of high-class English society and the author’s sophisticated use of words. L.P. Hartley has an interesting biography.
Quotes: “From being my enemy the summer had become my friend: this was another consequence of our Norwich shopping. I felt I had been given the freedom of the heat, and I roamed about in it as if I was exploring a new element. I liked to watch it rise shimmering from the ground and hang heavy on the tops of the darkening July trees. I liked the sense of suspended movement that it gave or seemed to give, reducing everything in Nature to the stillness of contemplation. I liked to touch it with my hand, and feel it on my throat and round my knees, which now were bare to its embrace. I learned to travel far, ever father into it, and achieve a close approximation with it; for I felt that my experience of it would somehow be cumulative and that if it would only get hotter and hotter there was a heart of heat I should attain to.”
“One remembers things at different levels. I still have an impression, distinct but hard to analyse, of the change that came over the household with Lord Trimingham’s arrival. Before, it had an air of self-sufficiency, and, in spite of Mrs. Maudsley’s hand on the reins, a go-as-you-please gait: now everyone seemed to be strung up, on tip-toe to face some test, as we were in the last weeks at school, with the examinations coming on. What one said and did seemed to matter more, as if something hung on it, as if it was contributing to a coming event.”
“Now the thought of the farmyard had lost its magic for me: it was as dead as a hobby that one has grown out of.”
“Also I knew we should not have the Litany, as we had had it last Sunday: this also was a great gain. Less than ever was I in a mood to repent of my sins or to feel that other people should repent of theirs: I could not find a flaw in the universe and was impatient with Christianity for bringing imperfection to my notice, so I closed my ears to its message and chose as a subject of meditation the annals of the Trimingham family emblazoned on the transept wall.”
“He indicated a row of small dark canvasses, set deep in heavy frames. (…) I didn’t like the look of the picture or its feeling; pictures, I thought, should be of something pretty, should record a moment chosen for its beauty. These people hadn’t even troubled to look their best; they were ugly and quite content to be so. They got something out of being their naked selves, their faces told me that: but this self-glory, depending on nobody’s approval but their own, struck me as rather shocking - more shocking than their occupations, unseemly as those were. They had forgotten themselves, that was it; and you should never forget yourself.”
“How everything else had been diminished by [the Ted and Marian relationship] and drained of quality! - for it was a standard of comparison but dwarfed other things. Its colours were brighter, its voice was louder, its power of attraction infinitely greater. It was a parasite of the emotions. Nothing else could live with it or have an independent existence while it was there. It created a desert, it wouldn’t share with anyone or anything, it wanted all the attention for itself. And being secret it contributed nothing to our daily life; it could no more be discussed than could some shameful illness.”
“We talked a little of my journey and of what I had done in life: both subjects that were easily disposed of. For conversational purpose, an ounce of incident is worth a pound of routine progress, and my life had little incident to record.”
How to start: This is a fun collection of stories!
Favourite quotes: “He sang with facial expressions that caused him to cut himself shaving. He shaved with a straight razor rather than wasting money on blades, and he bled as he sang, the foam on the razor stained pink and his face stuck up with bloody clots of toilet paper. I was afraid that, reaching for a note, he’d cut his throat.” (p 15)
“I’d done it out of the same wildness that made for an alliance between us - a bond that turned life comic at the expense of anything gentle. An impulsiveness that permitted a stupid, callous curiosity, the same dangerous lack of sense that had made me ride one day down Luther, a sunless side street that ran only a block, and, peddling at full speed, attempt to jump off my J. C. Higgins bike and back on in a single bounce.” (p127)
“A curfew of cold had emptied the streets.” (p 164)
“Picnics on a windowsill: braunschweiger, Jewish rye, mayonnaise, raw onion, potato salad blushing with paprika, a cold beer, an enormous garlicky sea green pickle tonged just minutes before at the corner deli by a young woman with high cheekbones and a slavic accent, her golden hair standing from turquoise combs that could hardly contain the weight of curls, ample breasts so loose they had to be bare in the sleeveless blue sundress she wore, and the blond hair growing profusely under her arms flashing as she dipped into a huge glass crock where a school of kosher pickles darted away and tried to hide amidst the dill weed, roiled seeds, and wheeling peppercorns.” (p 217)
“Children herded by billowing nuns, jostled into lines.
”The pigeon-launching church bells tolled one o’clock, if a single ring can be considered a toll. Its reverberation filled my apartment.
”That was lunch at the Loyola Arms Hotel - on one or another of those days when nothing happened really but lunch - and yet I don’t remember ever feeling more free, or more alone, than when I’d watch the children marching into school, surrendering the street back to the pigeons and shadow until it was empty and quiet again, and I sat propped in the window, draining the foam, with the length of an entire afternoon still before me.” (p 232)
“At eight a.m., he was waiting in the doorway when the Chinese herbalist came to open his pharmacy. Mick stepped into the shop’s alien atmosphere of dried herbs and powdered animals and inhaled a smell that seemed in itself curative.” (p 264)
“The boy and his gran seem more real to him than his room in the present. Suddenly, it’s clear to him that memory is the channel by which the past conducts its powerful energy; it’s how the past continues to love.” (p 283)
Tangential: This interview he gave makes me want to sit down and write!
I love year-end retrospectives, and so, joining in like a guest unafraid of water at a pool party, here’s mine!
I read about thirty books this year, some from a list of classics, including La Cousine Bette and Desperate Characters, and some specific self-help books including The Highly Sensitive Person, The Actor’s Life and The Business of Being a Writer. Some books went together, like Wuthering Heights and Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of the author. I got immersed in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in March but came up for air after the first two books and decided not to plunge back in. I stuck a toe in graphic novels, including Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Light reads included Theft by Finding and Brunch is Hell. Because I liked Carol Shield’s advice on writing, I read Stone Diaries. I liked Sally Mann’s book Hold Still, a choice influenced by Austin Kleon’s advice. University course subjects lead me to read Halfbreed by Maria Campbell and a collection of biographies on and writings by Nellie McClung.
On a whim I like to take out cookbooks at the library. These included How to Cook a Wolf, Six Seasons, Love and Lemons, My Kitchen Year, and Repertoire. I follow a menu plan for the year that is flexible enough to allow for new recipes and improvements, like when Jessica Battaliana’s Pork Saltimbocca surpassed all previous Chicken Saltimbocca attempts. And we’d probably adopt Jeanine Donofrio’s Vegan Carrot Waffles forever were it not our son’s aversion to carrots even in their sneakiest form. Food 52’s Fasoolya Khadra was deceptively delicious. We also liked their Rosy Chicken paired with Joy of Cooking Baked Polenta. Another delight was Cauliflower Ragu from Six Seasons. I’ve upped my salad repertoire thanks to the New York Times list of 101 Simple Salads of which the in-season peaches and tomato salad is a tasty memory. An August brunch stands out for its Plum Poppy-Seed Muffins and Mushroom and Shallot Quiche. Deb Perelman is a go-to for so many good recipes. Marie-Hélène’s birthday supper request was her Everyday Meatballs with fresh pasta. The Ice Cream Cake Roll was an impressive birthday dessert. Fresh strawberries still make Strawberry Shortcake one of my favourite desserts. In the summer we make Tomato Corn Pie. Around Christian’s birthday, we look forward to Butter Chicken. His favourite dessert is an Apple Crisp without oatmeal in the topping.
Still-young children make for a lot of nights in, but we did try out The Mitchell Block, Passero, and Nuburger at the Common on dates out. On weekends we’ll make a treat of a drink and Netflix. After watching Mindhunter, Rectify, Charité, Halt and Catch Fire, Ozark, Better Call Saul, the rest of Suits and most of Fargo, we’re looking forward to new seasons! On regular television Life in Pieces makes us laugh the most.
And you? Do you have any recommendations?
How to Start: The cover of Desperate Characters, the edition with the introduction by Jonathan Franzen where he praises the story and its author lavishly, somehow lead me to believe that Paula Fox was a young woman. She’s not though. She died in 2017 at the age of 93. This is her most well-known book.
Favourite quotes: “Sophie’s first exhilaration was gone. She was worried. Her whole left arm ached. Her excitement at the contrast between her formerly placid partner’s-wife friendship with Charlie – no questions, no answers – and their present circumstances, the thought of Otto asleep and unaware, which had given impetus to her flight from the house, had dropped away. Now it was like the labored conversation among guests at a late hour after there is nothing more to say, nothing but ashes in the fireplace, dishes in the sink, a chill in the room, a return to ordinary estrangement.” (p 34)
“Her body was not her own any more, but had taken off in some direction of its own. In this last year she had discovered that its discomforts, once interpreted, always meant the curtailment, or end, of some pleasure. She could not eat and drink the way she once had. Inexorably, she was being invaded by elements that were both gross and risible. She had only recently realized that one was old for a long time.” (p 48)
“She glanced at Tim’s impassive face. Perhaps he didn’t even know he had lied; perhaps he only recognized a lie when it was refuted.” (p 137)
“As often as not, she slept late on Monday, but that tardiness continued to trouble her just as it had done in her childhood. She woke now, as she had done then, to a faint malaise, a sense of a foothold gained just in time. Monday had always been a terrible trouble – once she had tried to stay awake all Sunday night to forestall her mother’s grim and unforgiving presence in her doorway – but she had fallen asleep just before dawn, to be awakened two hours later by her mother clapping her hands relentlessly over the bed, her face shining from her morning scrub, dressed in a starched house dress, saying over and over, “Early risers are the winners.” It had been thirty years since Sophie had been roused by that derisive applause; she had not yet discovered the nature of the prize her mother’s words had once led her to believe existed. Perhaps winning had simply meant the tyranny of waking others.” (p 147)
“She was nearly seventy, pickled in sunshine by now, living that California life, she thought. It had been months since she’d written, but it was so hard to write. Confronted with a sheet of writing paper, she could only fill it with banalities. Writing to her mother made her feel that she, Sophie, had no life at all. But her mother was an old woman. Surely she ought to honor her age, if nothing else.” (p 43)
Tangential: Desperate Characters was made into a movie in 1971. I’m ready to argue that the book is probably better…
How to start: The New York Times calls Raymond Carver "the most influential writer of American short stories in the second half of the 20th century". When the author himself writes about why he chose to write short stories and poems, he explains in an essay titled Fires: "During these ferocious years of parenting, I usually didn't have the time, or the heart, to think about working on anything very lengthy. (...) The circumstances of my life with these children dictated something else. They said if I wanted to write anything, and finish it, and if ever I wanted to take satisfaction out of finished work, I was going to have to stick to stories and poems." Later, his children grown, he reflects: "The circumstances of my life are much different now, but now I choose to write short stories and poems. Or at least I think I do. Maybe it's all a result of the old writing habits from those days."
Favourite quote: It could be said, for instance, that to take a wife is to take a history, And if that's so, the I understand that I'm outside history now - like horses and fog. Or you could say that my history has left me. Or that I'm having to go on without history. Or that history will now have to do without me - unless my wife writes more letters, or tells a friend who keeps a diary, say. Then, years later, someone can look back on this time, interpret it according to the record, its scraps and tirades, its silences and innuendos. That's when it dawns on me that Autobiography is the poor man's history. And that I am saying good-bye to history. Good-bye, my darling. (Blackbird Pie)
Tangential: There's a documentary on Youtube about his life.
This month, one year ago, my aunt came to visit. She’s since deceased.
I felt like I was just starting to get to know my aunt Marcia. In my dad’s family, there were ten children. My dad was the third oldest and Marcia was the youngest. When I was born, she was only 11. Because my mom didn’t really care for her husband’s giant Irish family’s shenanigans, I didn’t see much of them growing up. When I was a teenager my dad took to sneaking visits with his family, and sworn to secrecy, we could join him on those lazy Sunday afternoons. He’d be my grandma’s handyman sometimes. Or he’d feel comfortable and fall asleep in the upholstered lazy boy in the living room corner of the city bungalow she shared with Marcia. But those sporadic visits, of which I’d only witnessed the beginning before leaving home, weren’t enough for me to get to know my aunt.
My dad died in 2014 and so, when she accepted my invitation to Winnipeg last summer it felt like the chance for a more pleasant reunion. My interactions with my dad’s family were an inheritance; in many ways, I was merely benefitting from his mostly good relationships and one generation’s remove from the contentiousness. Nonetheless, time spent with Marcia over the course of a few days was tinged with familiar comfort. There were qualities, like thrift, or a kind of humour, that I could find in Marcia and she could find in me. There were mannerisms we had that were reminders of the person we missed in common.
And there were ways that we were different. One of the Winnipeg attractions I advertised was a visit to Thermëa, a self-guided Nordic spa experience. We were at the front desk when something I did while taking out my wallet made me drop a tampon on the floor. Marcia laughed and so did I when I bent down to scoop it up. When I popped back up I excused myself to the receptionist, and then told Marcia, out of the woman’s earshot, that I didn’t want that woman to think we were laughing at her. Marcia’s answer was, “Who cares?” She might have been right; I’m agreeable to a fault. But it was her refrain. She would often say it. “Who cares!” I suspect, though, that she did care. That maybe the expression was just a wishful anthem against normal, human vulnerability. Because most of all, she cared about trustworthiness. If you betrayed it, her decision was categorical. Either way, it meant that she had spent some time thinking about it. If it was harsh, there always seemed to be a chance to salvage a spot on her good side. If her sincerity had a rough edge, gaining her friendship felt like a priviledge.
While we had a nice time together that summer and were planning to see each other again the next, she died unexpectedly. Her death lead me to go through family albums with a kind of avidity. But photographs, for getting to know someone more, are unsatisfactory, even maddening. It’s like Susan Sontag writes: “Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.” The pictures with their subjects, their views as records, couldn’t give me any more of Marcia than a catalogue of things she thought worth photographing.
Her funeral highlighted qualities that defined her life: the work ethic that drove her success as a retail manager and the dedication she had for her mother’s care. It felt fateful to me that she had just organized and celebrated her mother’s 90thbirthday. The Sunday before her own quiet death, nurses had gathered at her mother’s table decked with flowers in the nursing home dining room and sang as my white-haired Grandma smiled and Marcia recorded. That was most of what she recorded: her mother and nature scenes. There wasn’t much art to it. Then again, “to photograph is to confer importance.” (Susan Sontag)
Literature allows us to imagine that people are full of complexity. When I think of my dad, a person I knew quite well, I see how that applies. If I were to talk about him, if I were to try to describe him to you, I might cut the effort short. I want to preserve him in all completeness. But it’s not the same with my aunt. My aunt, because of the nature of our short relationship, can live in my memory within a very neat container.
A writer named Jonas Hassen Khemiri once talked about a death in his family. He explained how people’s memories of the deceased were a way of defending a version of the person they knew. My version entails the goodness of her care, the respectability of her work, and the surprise of her death.
How to start: Mavis Gallant was a Canadian writer who lived in France. About reading short stories she writes the following in a Preface to The Selected Stories: "There is something I keep wanting to say about reading short stories. I’m doing it now because I may never have another occasion. Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait."
Favourite quotes: “In loving and unloving families alike, the same problem arises after a death: What to do about the widow?” (p 32)
“Barbara often said she had no use for money, no head for it. ‘Thank God I’m Irish,’ she said. ‘I haven’t got rates of interest on the brain.’ She read Irishness into her nature as an explanation for it, the way some people attributed their gifts and failings to a sign of the zodiac. Anything natively Irish had dissolved long before, leaving only a family custom of Catholicism and another habit, fervent in Barbara’s case, of anti-clerical passion.” (p 195)
“Barbara was aware of Diana, the mouse, praying like a sewing machine somewhere behind her.” (p 229)
“The only woman his imagination offered, [Grippes] with some insistence was no use to him. She moved quietly on a winter evening to Saint-Nicholas-du-Chadonnet, the rebel church at the lower end of Boulevard Saint-Germain, where services were still conducted in Latin. […] She entered the church and knelt down and brought out her rosary, oval pearls strung on thin gold. Nobody saw rosaries anymore. They were not even in the windows of their traditional venues, across the square from the tax bureau. Believers went in for different articles now: cherub candles, quick prayers on plastic cards. Her iron meekness resisted change. She prayed constantly into the past. Grippes knew that one’s view of the past is just as misleading as speculation about the future. It was one of the few beliefs he would have gone to the stake for. She as praying to a mist, a mist-shrouded figures she persisted in seeing clear.” (p 251)
“She had destroyed this beauty, joyfully, willfully, as if to force him to value her on other terms.” (p 283)
Tangential: A 47 minute documentary about Mavis Gallant and her writing is available on Vimeo. It’s called “Paris Stories: The Writing of Mavis Gallant”.
How to start: In giving advice to an aspiring writer named Arnold Samuelson, Earnest Hemingway wrote: “Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated.” Wuthering Heights was included, of course, on his list of 16, seen here. In a chapter about narration, Francine Prose explains what makes the book so compelling: “It’s hard to imagine a more ornate or artificial structure. So what’s surprising is how natural it seems, how quickly our awareness of artifice fades before the urgency of the story being narrated, and how fully the various characters emerge through the eyes and in the voice of a woman who is intuitive, wise, but not, strictly speaking, omniscient.” (Reading Like A Writer, p 88.)
Favourite passage: “I used to draw a comparison between him, and Hindley Earnshaw, and perplex myself to explain satisfactorily, why their conduct was so opposite in similar circumstances. They had both been fond husbands, and were both attached to their children; and I could not see how they shouldn’t both have taken the same road, for good or evil. But, I though in my mind, Hindley, with apparently the stronger head, has shown himself sadly the worse and the weaker man. When his ship struck, the captain abandoned his post; and the crew, instead of trying to save her, rushed into riot and confusion, leaving no hope for their luckless vessel. Linton, on the contrary, displayed the true courage of a loyal and faithful soul: he trusted God; and God comforted him. One hoped, and the other despaired; they chose their own lots, and were righteously doomed to endure them.”
Tangential: The Guardian published a list of the “100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time” and it included Elizabeth Gaskill’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, Emily’s sister. I read the book and it has a passage that alludes to Charlotte’s impression of her sister’s book, Wuthering Heights. The author writes:
“In December 1847, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey appeared. The first-named of these stories has revolted many readers by the power with which wicked and exceptional characters are depicted. Others, again, have felt the attraction of remarkable genius, even when displayed on grim and terrible criminals. Miss [Charlotte] Brontë herself says, with regard to this tale,
‘Where delineation of human character is concerned, the case is different. I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry amongst whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people that pass her convent gates. My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious: circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church, or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though the feeling for the people around her was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought, nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced; and yet she knew them, knew their ways, their language, and their family histories; she could head or them with interest, and talk of them with detail minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them she rarely exchanged a word. Hence it ensured, that what her mind has gathered of the real concerning them, was too exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits, of which, in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress. Her imagination, which was a spirit more sombre than sunny – more powerful than sportive – found in such traits material whence it wrought creations like Heathcliffe, like Earnshaw, like Catharine. Having formed these beings, she did not know what she had done. If the auditor of her work, when read in manuscript, shuddered under the grinding influence of natures so relentless and implacable – of spirits so lost and fallen; if it was complained that the mere hearing of certain vivid and fearful scenes banished sleep by night, and disturbed mental peace by day, Ellis Bell [Emily Brontë’s pseudonym] would wonder what was meant, and suspect the complainant of affectation. Had she but lived, her mind would of itself have grown like a strong tree – loftier, straighter, wider-spreading – and its matured fruits would have attained a mellower ripeness and sunnier bloom; but on that mind time and experience alone could work; to the influence of other intellects she was not amenable.’”
I had a pile of ironing to do, so I moved the ironing board to the living room and put Chef’s Table on Netflix, chosen so that the kids wouldn't feel tempted to stick around and watch. But I forgot how interesting it was to me even though I’d watched the first episode months ago. Now I wish there was more ironing…
Carman is just under an hour's drive from Winnipeg. I left early Saturday morning when it was bright and sunny and drove alongside fields still drying, just about ready to wake up. The Catholic Church in Carman is a pretty triangle-shaped green building.
I worked here, listening and taking notes. When I didn't need to take notes, I read Roz Chast's book Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? It's a memoir about her parents getting old and dying, and more than once it made me chuckle (quietly, to myself) while the meeting was going on. When her dad died, I felt like crying.
When there were group discussions, I was free to leave, and so I took a little walk around the area.
The sound of ice floating down the Boyne river and colliding with low hanging branches was a moment of contemplation until a woodchuck came scurrying through the dead leaves. It was a shy woodchuck, but more than anything my presence seemed to be an inconvenience to its busy work.
I stopped in at a thrift store to look around. It was nice and neat. A customer and a cashier were having a lighthearted exchange about the Jets and the street party in Winnipeg from the night before. Both agreed about just how much better it was to be living in the small town rather than the big city. It made me smile. I returned to my station for lunch.
People in these meetings seem to really like pastries. There was no end of donuts, muffins, danishes, pies, and cake.
How to start: A Moveable Feast is an fun, easy read. Like Karl Ove Knausgaard who wrote that when a journalist alluded to his collection of books he’d answered that he hadn’t read most of them “and the ones I have I don’t remember a thing about” I too remember very little of the books I’ve read. I think that’s why I take care to write out quotes I like. In the case of this book, I have only one. “They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who made jokes in life the seeds were covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.”
What I like better than that quote is one by Francine Prose. She writes:
Finally, before we leave the subject of sentences, let’s return once more to Hemingway, and to the passage from his memoir of his youth in Paris, A Moveable Feast, in which he describes his working method and which subsequent generations of writers have taken as a form of implicit literary advice:
Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going… I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.
For years, I’ve heard this passage about the one true sentence cited as a sort of credo. And I’ve nodded my head, not wanting to admit that I honestly had no idea what in the world Hemingway was talking about. What is a ‘true’ sentence in this context – that is, the context of fiction? What makes Hemingway’s advice so hard to follow is that he never quite explains what ‘true’ means.
Perhaps it’s wisest to assume that Hemingway, like countless others, was simply confusing truth with beauty. Possibly what he really meant was a beautiful sentence – a concept that, as we have seen, is almost as hard to define as the one true sentence.
In any case, it should encourage us. Hemingway was not only thinking about the good and beautiful and true sentence, but also using it as sustenance – as a goal to focus on, as a way to keep himself going. And though it’s obvious that times have changed, that what was true in Hemingway’s era may no longer be true today, the fact remains that Hemingway not only cared about sentences, not only told his publishers that they mattered to him, but told his readers, and told the world. (Reading Like A Writer, pages 61-62)
Ernest Hemingway also compiled and published writing advice. The Brain Pickings blog features a sample.
How to start: Katherine Mansfield was born in 1888 and is considered to be New Zealand's "most internationally famous author" according to the website in her name. She sounds like an endearing person if only for having said this: "Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others... Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth."
Favourite quotes: Alice was a mild creature in reality, but she had the most marvellous retorts ready for questions that she knew would never be put to her. The composing of them and the turning of them over and over in her mind comforted her just as much as if they'd been expressed. (Prelude)
But what I wanted to do was to behave in the most extraordinary fashion - like a clown. To start singing, with large extravagant gestures, to point out of the window and cry: "We are now passing, ladies and gentlemen, one of the sights for which notre Paris is justly famous," to jump out of the taxi while it was going, climb over the roof and drive in by another door; to hang out of the window and look for the hotel through the wrong end of a broken telescope, which was also a peculiarly ear-splitting trumpet. (Je ne parle pas français)
You know I had the mad idea that they were kissing in that quiet room - a long, comfortable kiss. One of those kisses that not only puts one's grief to bed, but nurses it and warms it and tucks it up and keeps it fast enfolded until it is sleeping sound. Ah! how good that is! (Je ne parle pas français)
What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss - absolute bliss! - as though you'd suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?...
Oh, is there no way you can express it without being "drunk and disorderly"? How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body is you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle? (Bliss)
He was passionately fond of music; every spare penny he had went on books. He was always full of new ideas, schemes, plans. But nothing came of it all. The new fire blazed in Jonathan; you almost heard it roaring softly as he explained, described, and dilated on the new thing; but a moment later it had fallen in and there was nothing but ashes, and Jonathan went about with a look like hunger in his black eyes. (At the Bay)
"Well, my opinion is that you two people ought to part. You'll do no earthly good together. Indeed, it seems to me, it's the duty of either of to set the other free." What happens then? He - and she - agree. It is their conviction too. You are only saying what they have been thinking all last night. And away they go to act on your advice, immediately... And the next time you hear of them they are still together. You see - you've reckoned without the unknown quantity - which is their secret relation to each other - and that they can't disclose even if they want to. Thus far you may tell and no further. Oh, don't misunderstand me! It need not necessarily have anything to do with their sleeping together... But this brings me to a thought I've often half entertained. Which is that human beings, as we know them, don't choose each other at all. It is the owner, the second self inhabiting them, who makes the choice for his own particular purposes, and - this may sound absurdly far-fetched - it's the second self in the other which responds. Dimly - dimly - or so it has seemed to me - we realize this, at any rate to the extent that we realize the hopelessness of trying to escape. (A Married Man's Story)
There is a very unctuous and irritating English proverb to the effect that "every cloud has a silver lining." What comfort can it be to one steeped to the eyebrows in clouds to ponder over their linings, and what an unpleasant picture postcard seal it sets upon one's tragedy - turning it into a little ha' penny monstrosity with a moon in the left-hand corner like a vainglorious threepenny bit! Nevertheless, like most unctuous and irritating things, it is true. The lining woke me after my first night at the Pension Séguin and showed me over the feather bolster a room bright with sunlight as if every golden-haired baby in heaven were pelting the earth with buttercup posies. (Violet)
It’s never happened to me before that a book about food makes me laugh out loud, but it happened to me, more than once, reading MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. I found this book on the Guardian’s list of "100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time" and borrowed it from the library on account of its title. As an extra layer of entertainment, the author has gone back on the version originally published in 1944 and made comments in parenthesis and brackets about what she wrote, agreeing sometimes, or disagreeing other times. Here is a collection of quotes about;
And any kitchen-idiot would know enough to core the apples. (p 21)
The natural progression from boiling water to boiling water with something in it can hardly be avoided, and in most cases is heartily to be wished for. As a steady diet, plain water is inclined to make thin fare, and even saints, of which there are an unexpected number these days, will gladly agree that a few herbs and perhaps a carrot or two and maybe a bit of meager bone on feast-days can mightily improve the somewhat monotonous flavour of the hot liquid.
Soup, in other words, is good. (p 28)
Strange soup customs:
A great deal of misinformation has been quoted for several centuries about the delicious soup that sits for years at the back of every good French stove. It is supposed to be like old-fashioned yeast, always renewing itself and yet always stemming from the original “starter”, so that a chicken bone thrown in last Easter may long since have disappeared but will still lend its aromatic aura to the present brew.
I do not like this fiction, and prefer not to believe it. I think soup-pots should be made fresh now and then, like people’s minds at the New Year. They should be emptied and scrubbed and started over again, with clean water, a few peppercorns, whatever little scraps are left from yesterday, and then today’s bones and lettuce leaves and cold toast and such. Set at the back of the stove and left to summer, with an occasional stir from the cook, they can make a fine clear stock for sauces as well as a heartening broth. (p 30)
The best soup:
Probably the most satisfying soup in the world for people who are hungry, as well as for those who are tired or worried or cross or in debt or in a moderate amount of pain or in love or in robust health or in any kind of business huggermuggery, is minestrone. (p 38)
The proliferation of mediocre cookbooks:
Its inevitable progress from a pot with a watery bone in it to potage à la Reine and Crème Vichyssoise is for anyone to read in forty thousand cookbooks, most of them bad. [By now there must be fifty thousand, most of them still bad, or at least dull. It is safe to wager that in the past eight years not more than eight really important cookbooks have been published in America… and that, of those, not more than one is essential. (At first I wrote: “Not one.”)] (p 29)
About consulting other cookbooks:
I can make amazingly bad fried eggs, and in spite of what people tell me about this method and that, I continue to make amazingly bad fried eggs: tough, with edges like some kind of dirty starched lace, and a taste part sulphur and part singed newspaper. The best way to find a trustworthy method, I think, is to ask almost anyone but me. Or look in a cookbook. Or experiment. (p 57)
I suggest that anyone who acknowledges the value of good cookery in a life deliberately full of love, happiness and health (that is, anyone who cares about human dignity!) read several other books and from them and this one and most of all from himself produce his own decision. (p 124)
One way to horrify at least eight out of ten Anglo-Saxons is to suggest their eating anything but the actual red fibrous meat of a beast. A heart or a kidney or even a sweetbread is anathema. It is too bad, since there are so many nutritious and entertaining ways to prepare the various livers and lights. They can become gastronomic pleasures instead of dogged voodoo, so that when you eat a stuffed baked bull’s heart, or a grilled lamb’s brain or a “mountain oyster,” you need not choke them down with the nauseated resolve to be braver or wiser or more potent, but with plain delight. [I believe this more firmly than ever, but am years wearier in my fight: Now, when I want to eat what English butchers call “offal,” I wait until everyone has gone to the Mid-South Peoria Muezzins’ Jamboree and Ham-bake, and then make myself a dainty dish.] (p 101)
Why is it worse, in the end, to see an animal’s head cooked and prepared for out pleasure than a thigh or a tail or a rib? If we are going to live on other inhabitants of this world we must not bind ourselves with illogical prejudices, but savor to the fullest the beasts we have killed.
People who feel that a lamb’s cheek is gross and vulgar when a chop is not are like the medieval philosophers who argued about such hairsplitting problems as how many angels could dance on the point of a pin. If you have these prejudices, ask yourself if they are not built on what you may have been taught when you were young and unthinking, and then if you can, teach yourself to enjoy some of the parts of an animal that are not commonly prepared. (p 103)
But for all of us, no matter what our tastes, life would be simpler and the wolf would howl less loudly if we could adjust our minds to admit, even if we never quite believed it, that a tender sizzling rare grilled tenderloin was a luxury instead of a necessity. (p 110)
War cake can be made in muffin-tins, and baked more quickly, but in a loaf it stays fresh longer. It is very good with a glass of milk, I remember. (I am sure that I could live happily forever without tasting it again. There are many things like that: you recall with astonishment and a kind of admiration some of the things eaten with sensual delight at eight or eighteen, that would be a gastronomical auto da fé for you at twenty-eight, or fifty. But that does not mean that you were wrong so long ago. War Cake says nothing to me now, but I know that it is an honest cake, and one loved by hungry children. And I’m not ashamed of having loved it… merely a little puzzled, and thankful that I am no longer eight.) (p 155)
Unpleasant kitchen smells:
Indeed, it can be said that fumes linger, period. They lurk in cupboards. They drift subtly through closed doors, not matter what cunning draft you may enforce, at risk of double pneumonia, through the kitchenette. They hang in the curtains, and fall out at you two nights later like overripe shreds of dead ghost.
There is not much to do about it; you either like fried onion or hot cabbage salad enough to endure them, or you eat lettuce or green peas instead. (p 172)
How to start: La cousine Bette is one book from among the 91 stories, novels and essays that comprise La Comédie humaine. Balzac was a prolific French writer who died at the age of 51.
Favourite quote: (in the original French) "Puis, que les vrais amants de l'art aillent voir, à Florence, le Penseur, de Michel-Ange, et, dans la cathédrale de Mayence, la Vierge d'Albert Durer, qui a fait, en ébène, une femme vivante sous ses triples robes, et la chevelure la plus ondoyante, la plus maniable que jamais femme de chambre ait peignée; que les ignorants y courent, et tous reconnaitront que le génie peut imprégner l'habit, l'armure, la robe, d'une pensée et y mettre un corps, tout aussi bien que l'homme imprime son caractère et les habitudes de sa vie à son enveloppe.
"La sculpture est la réalisation continuelle du fait qui s'est appelé pour la seule et unique fois dans la peinture: Raphaël! La solution de ce terrible problème ne se trouve que dans un travail constant, soutenu, car les difficultés matérielles doivent être tellement vaincues, la main doit être si châtiée, si prête et obéissante, que le sculpteur puisse lutter âme à âme avec cette insaisissable nature morale, qu'il faut transfigurer en la matérialisant. Si Paganini, qui faisait raconter son âme par les cordes de son violon, avait passé trois jours sans étudier, il aurait perdu, avec son expression, le registre de son instrument: il désignait ainsi le mariage existant entre le bois, l'archet, les cordes et lui; cet accord dissous, il serait soudain devenu un violoniste ordinaire.
"Le travail constant est la loi de l'art comme celle de la vie; car l'art, c'est la création idéalisée. Aussi, les grands artistes, les poètes complets n'attendent-ils ni les commandes ni les chalands; ils enfantent, aujourd'hui, demain, toujours. Il en résulte cette habitude du labeur, cette perpétuelle connaissance des difficultés qui les maintient en concubinage avec la muse, avec ses forces créatrices. Canova vivait dans son atelier, comme Voltaire a vécu dans son cabinet, Homère et Phidias ont dû vive ainsi."
Tangential: Balzac loved coffee! In fact his death has been attributed to its overconsumption. The Airship Blog has an entertaining read on the subject.
How to start: This novel by Jay McInerney is short, fast-paced and has an ending as satisfying as a pickle with snap.
Favourite quote: "But what you are left with is a premonition of the way your life will fade behind you, like a book you have read too quickly, leaving a dwindling trail of images and emotions, until all you can remember is a name." (page 127)
Tangential: This was Jay McInerney's first novel and if you want to know more about him than the wikipedia entry, there's this article from The Guardian.
The day is somewhat dreary and the kids play and bicker and play and bicker. We went to the mall, resigned to not find anything at Sears, and to need snacks and wipes. But I found a swim shirt and swim shorts for Marie-Hélène whom I failed last week when I was responsible for bringing her to her lesson, and lost her shorts. So it is.
I followed the boys around the store, letting them follow their own meandering curiosity. I found a laundry basket for them, the old one being too small and un-aerated. The label for the basket read something about a good place for “close” and since it was made in China I started to think that the writing was dictated over the phone. So funny, I would say, take a picture, post it online, and make someone else smile over the miscommunication. But it’s trifling. The store is closing. Corners are being gathered up signs moved about, shelves coming down. I wonder if they still make a profit with their sales.
I tell Cedric that the store is closing and he says, "Alright, let’s go!" and I laugh and try to explain the pun… It’s closing in the larger sense, the giant no-more-Sears sense. But I’m not sure he understands. William and I continue to follow him around. I pause to pick up stationary. Might as well. We always need sticky notes. There are never enough. Or so I reason.
At the checkout the boys mill about and I’m worried about what they can get in to while I’m trying to concentrate on the transaction and so I sit them on the counter. An older couple passing by asks if they are for sale. I price them at 10 thousand each and then over dishes in the afternoon consider the price I set and the answer she gave… "Way more than that!" So that yes, I am caught in this funny conundrum… The kids have no price, because they are small, loved, and full of potential, and precious to me, their only mother. But there was no IVF, no adoption. They cost nothing to make. Anyone can make a child, even if the individual’s existence has been calculated as a very rare chance when every strange odd is factored in. And then there is that aspect of ownership… What priceless means is that money assigns a value on something that is neither an investment, a payment, or a property. They are immaterial beings wrapped up in skin and clothes like me, like their father, like anyone.
What funny things our children do to us... They make us stretch and grow and turn us into parents. But they aren't really ours either... They're lent us and we foster them awhile and give them tools we think are important for life (or wish we had had) and they go on and find their way and move along time a little further than we'll get.
How to start: Dombey and Son is a huge book. I thought I was done halfway through, only to discover I hadn’t noticed that the edition I’d picked up had a second part. But Dickens is always fun to read…
Three favourite quotes: “The barrier between Mr Dombey and his wife, was not weakened by time. Ill-assorted couple, unhappy in themselves and in each other, bound together by no tie by the manacle that joined their fettered hands, and straining that so harshly, in their shrinking asunder, that it wore and chafed to the bone, Time, consoler of affliction and softener of anger, could do nothing to help them. Their pride, however different in kind and object, was equal in degree; and in their flinty opposition struck out fire between them which might smoulder or might blaze, as circumstances were, but burned up everything within their mutual reach, and made their marriage way a road of ashes.”
“The cheerful vista of the long street, burnished by the morning light, the sight of the blue sky and airy clouds, the vigorous freshness of the day, so flushed and rosy in its conquest of the night awakened no responsive feelings in her so hurt bosom.”
“… and they got up together, and went on together; Di more off the ground than on it, endeavouring to kiss his mistress flying, tumbling over and getting up again without the least concern, dashing at big dogs in a jocose defiance of his species, terrifying with touches of his nose young housemaids who were cleaning doorsteps, and continually stopping, in the midst of a thousand extravagances, to look back at Florence, and bark until all the dogs within hearing answered, and all the dogs who could come out, came out to stare at him.”
Tangential: Orwell wrote an interesting essay on Charles Dickens. I really liked his appraisal of the 19th century author. And recently the Allusionist did a whole feature about Charles Dickens with a special Christmas-time tie-in.
Last year, oppressed by boredom and the bleak lack of a social life, I decided to throw a winter party. It was inspired by Design Mom’s “Host a Hot Cocoa Bar!” minus the spontaneity. Planning got me excited, and since the boys were no longer the energy-draining infant and toddler duo they had been, hosting wasn’t as much of a challenge. In 2016, we pulled it off and lived on the high for days afterward.
This year we did it again. We added some formality, some new decorations, and baked for the gluten-free and dairy-free exceptions. We took notes for next year… the friends don’t seem to mind this becoming a tradition.