The world feels upended these days. Is it just since this past November and a certain election, or has it been building for some time?
Today as I write this, it’s continuing to rain in the Ottawa area and people living near the Ottawa River are sandbagging their homes against flooding. As a poet, finding metaphor in everything is an occupational hazard, so I’m trying not to do that while other people are worried about losing homes and experiencing WET as a very real-world thing. (And yet?)
That’s why I am so happy to fall into good books these days. Okay, always — but lately I’m very aware of an immense sense of gratitude for the writers who are steadfast in their craft, just turning out one good sentence after another, one good story after another, one good poem, one good book. It’s the small daily act of creativity adding up to something that changes the world. (I don’t say that lightly: art = change.)
This past week I was hosting an event with three writers at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. This is a local writers festival that has been running now for 20 years and has always been a big part of my reading life, and often provides inspiration for my writing life as well.
Lori McNulty is someone I’d met at the UBC Creative Writing MFA programme. Her debut short fiction collection is LIFE ON MARS (Goose Lane, 2017) and it is really spectacular. Completely original stories matched with fresh, vivid language. (Her verbs!) I meant to read the stories one by one but ending up cramming them into me like cookies hot from the oven: just one more.
When I heard Elise Levine had a new book out, I was really excited. Her short story collection DRIVING MEN MAD (Porcupine’s Quill, 1995) was a touchstone for me when I was writing, rewriting and ripping up my own baby stories in the 90s. Her novel BLUE FIELD is published by Biblioasis (2016), and they’ve done a stellar job with a gorgeous blue laminated cover that makes the book feel like the treasure it is. The novel is slim but powerful — the story of Marilyn, her extreme scuba-diving husband Rand, and her friend Jane. I read this book all in one sitting, coming up for air at the end and not wanting anyone to speak to me for hours afterward in case they broke the spell. It’s that kind of book: you need it.
THE CHANGE ROOM (Random House Canada, 2017) needs to be a movie. A very sexy movie. I initially felt that this easy read of a novel is a departure for poet and novelist Karen Connolly, who is known for her more overtly “political” work rooted in Southeast Asia, but that leaves aside completely the politics of sex, which is central to this novel, and how the political machinations of the world swirl around the lives of the two main characters: Eliza and Shar. (I really want to meet Shar but fear I have been hanging out in the wrong change rooms.) This book was such fun to read and I didn’t realize how much I needed that in a book right now until I’d put it down. If you are in a mixed gender book club, I will pay good cash money to come watch the conversation over this one: it is book club gold.
The next night at the Festival, I attended a session with novelists Susan Perly, Andrew Westoll and Steven Heighton. Wonderful readings, although I haven’t yet read the books. (My “To Be Read” pile is a small house.) But I did get a flash of an idea for my next short story and had to rush home from the hospitality suite to write it down.
Immense gratitude to these writers for their books, and to any writer just putting one word after another right now. I know how hard-won your stories and poems are, but for those of us who look to books to understand more about ourselves and the world, it really is a great gift. THANK YOU.