Nov 13 2012

And she won!

Earlier today the Governor General’s Literary awards selected Linda Spalding’s new novel, The Purchase, as this year’s winner.

The recognition will undoubtedly introduce readers not yet familiar with her work to the twin gratifications of beautiful prose and compelling plot.

It’s an honour to have been able to feature Linda’s essay in I Feel Great About My Hands. (see more about her new book and an excerpt from the collection in previous post)  


Oct 29 2012

Linda Spalding shortlisted for two awards

I was riveted by author Linda Spalding‘s 2005 book, Who Named the Knife, an engrossing exploration of her intersection with a murder case in Hawaii many years ago. As a juror who was dismissed near the end of the trial for being 10 minutes late, she  was unable to shake the feeling that her presence at the time of the decision might have made a difference to the convicted woman’s fate. The New York Times called the book “an honest, creepily fascinating memoir/true-crime story”.

Author Linda Spalding with her husband, Michael Ondaatje (courtesy of her website)

So I was thrilled when Linda agreed to contribute an essay to I Feel Great About My Hands — and even more delighted when I received it. In “Face It”, she revisits some childhood memories about the beauty shop in her Kansas hometown, and then tells of her encounter with a plastic surgeon — a tale she renders at once chilling and literary. In conversation with the doctor about gravity’s effect on skin, she refers to “the saggy, baggy elephant in the children’s story.” His blank look gives her pause:

How could I trust a doctor who had not read the story of the little elephant who doesn’t know what he is because he doesn’t look like anyone else in the jungle? When a parrot tells him his ears are too big, his nose is too big, and his skin is much, much too big, the little elephant says he’d be glad to improve himself. But how? I looked at the hand mirror, wondering the same thing, while the doctor spoke softly about the droop of my lower and upper lids. His surgical method involves a good deal of bleeding and bruising, he said. “Do you have sensitivities?”

The little elephant had tried to smooth out his skin with his trunk. He had soaked in a river with the crocodiles to make his skin shrink. A tiger had offered to take some bites out of his hide.

“I tend to weep.”

“With all the cutting, you might end up weeping for the rest of your life,” said the doctor blandly. “Or you might never weep again.”

I listened to a long litany of risks. If I woke up in the night unable to see, I should go to emergency. I should not call him. This is the end of me, sags, bags, wrinkles and all, thought the little elephant. And I put on my coat and went down the marble stairs.

Now Linda’s new novel, The Purchase, described by the Globe and Mail as “eerily compelling” and “an engrossing historical melodrama that reads like an HBO miniseries,” has been short-listed for both a Governor-General’s Literary Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

It’s great to see her work getting such recognition.

 


Jul 17 2012

Reading and Singing Farewell Tribute to Mother Tongue Friday July 20th


How would you like to share the stage with a jazz vocalist who one critic describes as having

A voice so rich it makes me crave a glass of milk.

Friday night at the final in a series of farewell soirée for the venerable Mother Tongue Books, I get to do just that.

Fabulous Ottawa singer/songwriter Renée Yoxon will be performing her magic, and I’ll read brief bits from some of the funniest and most poignant essays and poems by the likes of Mary Walsh, Lorna Crozier and others who contributed to I Feel Great About My Hands.

I’ll also tell a story or two about Informed Opinions, the project the book is supporting, which is designed to train and inspire women to share their ideas, analyses and informed opinions more often and more widely.

 7 pm  Friday July 20th

Mother Tongue Books

1067 Bank Street

If you’re in town, come join the celebration of an Ottawa institution that has supported local authors and featured a diverse selection of feminist, lesbian and queer literature.


Jun 27 2012

Nora Ephron, RIP

“To laugh often and much,” Ralph Walden Emerson advised,  was among the markers of a successful person. And those brilliant enough to make the rest of us laugh often and much are in a special category of their own.

Nora Ephron was one of those, and her passing yesterday at a youthful 71 is a loss to all those who knew and appreciated and laughed at her work… In movies, novels and essays, she provoked and entertained, telling it like it is, and inspiring as many sparks of recognition as unexpected guffaws.

She was living proof that women can be just as funny as men, and she alone should have put to rest that old saw about feminists, in particular, having no sense of humour.

Although I own well-thumbed copies of all of her essay collections, and loved When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, my favourite Nora Ephron-written humorous performance may be one she delivered herself at a Life Achievement Award Tribute to Meryl Streep in 2004. On this YouTube clip, you get to see Nora being Nora: smart, beautiful, generous and funny.

I called my collection I Feel Great About My Hands in tribute to Nora Ephron. There are lots of gems in I Feel Bad About My Neck, as in everything she did. And the good news is, we can keep re-reading and re-viewing her great body of work to celebrate the gifts that she shared.


Apr 23 2012

Great opening lines

“I remember the exact day it happened — the very moment I became invisible.” (From “The Pleasures of An Older Man”)

“Hello, My name is J’moi White. I am in grade 10. For my history assignment I was assigned Judy Rebick. Hopefully this is you.” (from “Struggling to Become an Elder”)

“Let’s be candid: no one wants to be known as a ‘mature student’.” (from “Back To School”)

Are you intrigued by one or all of these sentences? Does your mind immediately respond to the implicit questions they evoke with questions of your own?

Mine did, which made me happy to include them in I Feel Great About My Hands. (They begin the reflections by Harriett Lemer (at right), Judy Rebick (below), and best friends and co-authors, Susan Delacourt and Susan Harada.)

There were other reasons, too, of course: each of the essays made me laugh, resonated with some aspect of my personal experience, and contained a few insights about aging that hadn’t occurred to me.

I’ve always been a critical consumer of opening sentences, but in an age of humming bird attention spans and 140-character Twitter posts, they’re  more important than ever.

And in the context of the Informed Opinions workshops I lead these days (Writing Compelling Commentary), I’m regularly reminded that investing a few minutes in coming up with a strong opener is well worth the effort. (Op ed page editors are busy people who have to sift through a lot of submissions, some of which are dreck. You don’t want to give them a reason to lump your insightful analysis in with those who can’t conjugate a sentence by putting them to sleep with your first paragraph.)

And yet sometimes in an attempt to establish the relevancy of the topic they’re addressing, aspiring op ed writers will start their pieces with an unassailably true declarative statement that everyone will recognize as such. (“The population is aging.” “Wait list lines are too long.”)

This is not a good strategy. What’s the incentive to read further when the opening line tells us something we already know? (“News” is, by definition, ahem, new.)

 


Feb 6 2012

“What happened to Gracie’s eggs?!”

… That’s what the woman standing in front of me urgently wanted to know.

Sheila Deane explaining the significance of Gracie's eggs to a rapt audience at the National Arts Centre

I was as delighted with her question as she had been with Sheila Deane’s essay, “Kick the Can” — even though I’d only read a brief excerpt from it, along with sections from a few others, and my own at the BC Truck Loggers Convention Ladies Luncheon taking place recently in (unusually) snowy Victoria.

Equally gratifying was the experience of reading “My Last Erotic Poem”, Lorna Crozier’s contribution to the collection. I had to pause for laughter after EVERY SINGLE LINE.

Not surprisingly, all of the books I’d brought to the event were snapped up by eager readers, and the organizer said to me afterwards that the stories I read and told from I Feel Great About My Hands resonated so well with the diverse group of woman (ages 30 to 70)that they probably should have skipped the fashion show component and just given me more time to talk about the book.

The assembled audience’s engagement extended to the project it’s helping to support: Although I only spoke briefly about Informed Opinions, which receives a 10% royalty from every book sold, when I ran out of copies, two of the women still in line to purchase  one handed me their $20 bills and said, “We’d like to donate these to the project.”

Apparently the complementariness of the two goes both ways: recently after I delivered a half-day Informed Opinions workshop to some quick studies at the Canadian Nurses Association in Ottawa, one of the participants ordered three copies, just on the basis of a promotional postcard featuring all of the contributors’ names. (Because they’re an interesting and impressive bunch!)

As for the answer to the question above? All I can tell you is that if you want to learn what happened to Gracie’s eggs, and what they had to do with the benefits of aging, you’ll just have to buy the book! (Fortunately, it’s still widely available.)

And if I can’t make it to your luncheon or book club meeting to read a funny or inspirational excerpt or two, one of the other contributors may well be available!

 


Nov 24 2011

Book signing at Britton’s

… in the Glebe, Sunday between 1 pm and 3 pm — 846 Bank Street — thanks to the generous support of Ted Britton — the kind of guy every neighbourhood should have.

In fact, last night on CBC Radio’s As it Happens, Carol Off interviewed the Orange-prize-winning author Ann Patchett about her newest venture: opening an independent bookstore in her neighbourhood after all the existing ones had closed down. Given the precarious states of both publishing and book retailing, the act seems above and beyond the call of duty (shouldn’t it be enough that this fabulous writer has given us the pleasure of being transported by Bel Canto, Truth and Beauty, and Run, among other titles?)

But one of the things that makes a neighbourhood is the quality of the local retailers. And Britton’s, a Glebe fixture since 1966, keeps an impressively diverse collection of newspapers and magazines. Ted Britton has run the business since 1978, and he goes out of his way to stock books on issues of both local and national interest, and to support writers with informal signings.

If you were inconvenienced by my unceremoniously cancelled appointment earlier this week at Chapters, I hope you can make it to Britton’s on Sunday instead.

 


Nov 24 2011

Google alerts a mixed blessing

It’s a mixed blessing when the google alert you receive in your email inbox links you to a website which tells you that although BC’s Okanagan Regional Library system possesses five copies of your book, all of them are in circulation, one has given you a four-star review, and 12 people have placed holds on the collection.

Because at first you think, wow, five copies, all checked out, and a dozen readers eagerly awaiting their return!

But then you wonder, well, how eager could they really be if they’re prepared to wait for a copy to become available?

And, moving into decidedly uncharitable waters, you grouse, come on, people: four stars! couldn’t you go out and buy the damn book? So Chapters won’t return it to the publisher?

But then you remember that even 22.95 plus tax is a luxury for lots of people, libraries are critically important institutions, and you should feel grateful that the book is being acquired — and read — in communities across the country.

Speaking of Chapters, however, I’d like to express my abject apologies to any Ottawa readers who may have showed up at the Rideau Centre outlet last night, thinking I would be on hand to sign a copy of the book. It’s painful for a professional communicator to admit that miscommunication was responsible for the mix-up that saw Chapters book someone else into a slot that had been reserved for me, but there you are. And I’m sorry if anyone was inconvenienced.

In the meantime, I can assure you that the power of the collection without my signature is in no way diminished. (However, since I live in Ottawa, if you really wanted a copy of the book personally addressed to your beloved Aunt Mimi, or your best friend, Pat, that could be arranged. See next post.)

 


Nov 13 2011

Apparently I’m a fascist…

And to think I was concerned about critics calling the collection “uneven”…

Instead, the reviewer — a female writer over the age of 50 who I didn’t know and therefore didn’t think to invite to contribute to the book — began her broadcast commentary on I Feel Great About My Hands by describing me as “left leaning” and my organizing principle as “fascistic”. (But what does she really think, you might be wondering.)  And then she went on to complain that I had failed to include the voices of any welfare moms or plastic surgery queens. (um… really?)

The rational part of me dismissed the critique because she, did, after all, allow that a third of the pieces in the book were brilliant. She quoted from the entries written by Mary Walsh, Lorna Crozier and Meri Collier. And — I’ve done the math —  she must also have appreciated at least another eight or nine.

But the sensitive, occasionally insecure, emotional part of me (and yes, it likely is the bigger part), was a bit stung. A week later I’m still writing her pithy notes in my head and having fantasy encounters which involve me delivering withering refutations in front of a large and sympathetic audience of people who laugh at my witticisms and line up to get their copies of I Feel Great About My Hands signed afterwards.

Let’s start with “left-leaning”. I think the reviewer in question may have lazily cobbed this characterization from another review, but the truth is, in the 35 years since I became eligible to vote, I have cast ballots for candidates representing every major political party. Not even my husband is privy to the details, let alone which ones I endorsed for reasons of partisan affiliation, support for a particular issue, or the ultimately unfulfilled promise of a financial kick-back. (Kidding.) But if my purported lefty-ness was truly a crucial component, wouldn’t I have gone out of my way to include the missing welfare moms (or at least a union organizer)?  Really, what was I thinking? Why didn’t I badger a few women raising children in impoverished circumstances to donate their labour and talent to my cause with no expectation of compensation?!

I confess, it didn’t occur to me. Every month when I’m paying the smaller portion of my bills, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to share my life and corresponding expenses with a financially successful partner.  I well know what a luxury it is to be able to marshall the kind of time and energy necessary to tease insights and entertainment out of tightly crafted sentences. And although I also know a few financially struggling writers (apologies for the redundancy) who rely on coffee shop wifi and/or work retail to supplement the meagre income that writing often affords, none of them are currently collecting welfare or raising children. Sorry.

In fact, in recruiting contributors to the collection, I emailed twice as many interesting and outspoken women as ultimately appeared in the book. Recipients of my invitations were racially diverse, geographically spread out, and affiliated with every major political party. Some of them were more enthusiastic than others; more than a few promised to send me something but didn’t get around to it;  but only one sent me a snarky note ridiculing the endeavour and the cause it supports. C’est la vie.

As for ignoring the voices of any plastic surgery queens, well, um, OK — guilty as charged. Unfairly perhaps, I generally imagine that people who are addicted to needle- and anaesthetic-assisted cosmetic enhancement are perhaps less likely than the average woman to welcome the sometimes dubious benefits of aging. And yes, that was my organizing principle: I didn’t forbid anyone from acknowledging the gravity-induced disappointments of extra years (see pages 1 through 243; nor did I edit out the nurmorous references to hot flashes, gray hair or memory loss. But because I did encourage contributors to also share something that they genuinely appreciated about having been on the planet more than half a century, apparently I’m a fascist.

The ultimate irony, however is this: the reviewer dissed the collection for being “derivative” (riffing off Nora Ephron‘s title, collecting women’s voices like Dropped Threads — and countless other anthologies — have.) But she’s named her own blog a variation on “Stuff White People Like”…

So, really.

 


Oct 25 2011

On Maintenance, Marion and Maude

It’s not that I’m not attached to how I look, or spend more time than you would imagine on fixing my hair or sweating on an eliptical machine, but when I read Nora Ephron’s essay “On Maintenance” a few years ago (it’s the second piece in I Feel Bad About My Neck), I wasn’t really feeling the pain of the hours she catalogued.

However, in the past week or so, my daytimer has had to accommodate  two mammograms, one ultrasound, a bone densomiter test, a visit to my dermatologist and a treatment from my friendly osteopath. None of these were precipitated by actual health problems; they’re all preventative and would therefore qualify as “maintenance” (albeit health, not beauty).

My new colleague, Claire, wise beyond her twenty-something years, has refrained from  commenting on the crater this time investment has created in my productivity, but I’m concerned about the message it’s sending: I’m only 53, after all.

Maude Carlyle: no resemblance to your stereotypical mother-in-law

But it reminds me of the conversation I had with Marion back in April, just after the book was published. When I told Marion, a scientist now in her 80s, that the subtitle of the collection was “and other unexpected joys of aging”, there was a pause on her end of the line, and then she asked — not unkindly –

and what would you know about aging, Shari?

I had to admit, she had a point. Relatively speaking, a 53-year-old knows almost nothing about aging. And — having witnessed up close the plethora of health and mobility issues affecting Marion’s sister, Maude, my beloved former mother-in-law — not to mention her dear husband Allan, and my own much cherished parents — it’s not like I don’t appreciate the difference.

But that underlines one of the insights I had in the process of writing and editing the book. As I recalled in my introduction, reviewing a series of TV commentaries I taped in the 1990s was an illuminating experience.

I remembered the experience as deeply fraught. Unlike crafting arguments for the newspaper or radio, where my unshaped eyebrows or unsuitable clothing in no way interfered with the persuasiveness of my prose, TV commentary demanded an unprecedented degree of appearance vigilance. Borderline brilliant wit could be easily and irrevocably hijacked by wind-whipped hair, my nose in profile, or visible evidence of my face’s recent intimacy with a pillow.

But watching the commentaries 15 years later, what struck me more than anything was how surprisingly okay I looked—if only relative to today. What exactly was my problem, I wondered. And that’s when I made the leap into the realm of French novelist Colette.  It was she who famously observed, “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I had realized it sooner.”

At that moment I vowed to keep on realizing that how I look and feel this year is likely better than I will next.