Living Arts: The "L" Word

Thursday 27 August 2015
This post originally appeared on the Hamilton Arts Council's LivingArts Blog.

Many years ago, a kindly old man at a used bookstore welcomed me into his shop.

“We have many books you might like,” he said politely. “Our ‘chick lit’ section is right over there.” He pointed to a shelf teeming with mass market paperbacks with pastel spines emblazoned with cursive writing.

I like to think he noticed the horror in my eyes. I was young. I was insecure. I was full of that snobbery that exists when you’re 20 and on a quest to prove that you’re more intelligent and worldly than you actually are.

I read good books, I thought to myself. I read literary books! I immediately resented being shoved into a category based on my gender.

Marketers especially like to neatly categorize books. In literary circles, you hear a lot of talk about genre fiction vs. literary fiction. These categories create a division line between works of art and everything else, including (but not limited to) books that are commercial, trashy, or popular. This categorization can be a breeding ground for literary snobbery.

Literary is a weighty term. It carries with it a lot of meaning, but it can also be ambiguous. For some who work in the literary arts, it’s a term that can be challenging and limiting, including for festivals that are trying to diversify audiences and expand programming.

“I love to read, but I’d feel out of place at a literary festival,” I’ve been told by friends and family members upon mentioning my work at gritLIT: Hamilton’s Readers and Writers Festival (formerly, you guessed it, Hamilton’s Literary Festival). Many, I’ve found, associate the word literary, and by association the term “literary festivals,” with intellectual and academic stuffiness. To friends and family, the words “literary” and “grit” offered competing messages.

Snobbery doesn’t win you friends in Hamilton. It’s a city where events are held in former cotton mills and hardware stores, restaurants are named after modes of transportation, and phrases like “food trucks” and “pop ups” are synonymous with culture. We’re grassroots. We’re organic. We’re anything but snooty.

Festivals, publishers, and authors are constantly seeking new ways of reaching audiences who don’t already travel in the book tour circuit. They’re attempting to blow away the dust from old notions of the bookish community and to engage a younger and more diverse audience.

In a lot of ways, they’re succeeding, especially as publishers reach out to bloggers with youthful and energetic voices, and festivals find more ways to be interactive. Just look at Woody Point, the maritime festival that blurs “the boundaries between nature and humanity, between words and music, between writers and readers,” bringing together music and books in an idyllic setting. Books on Bloor in Toronto brings together cycling and literature. gritLIT 2014 even welcomed long-time fans of Teenage Head to celebrate the release of a book about the iconic Hamilton band. (The at-capacity event resulted in the first, and only, time an audience needed to be removed for rowdiness).

Many of my days are immersed in books and writing, but very few of these days feel weighted down by stuffiness and snobbery. I’m not saying these things don’t exist, but they’re certainly not the norm, at least in my small corner of the literary world.

What do you think about when you hear the word “literary?” I’m curious to know.

Photo Friday: Book Spoils

Friday 21 August 2015

I've been spoiled this week from Random House who has so generously send me advanced copies of some of their books. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that free books are the way to my heart!

Snapshots of Hillside

Tuesday 18 August 2015

If you've read this blog for any amount of time, you know that the Hillside Festival in Guelph is one of my favourite bits of summer. It's been a summer tradition for a number of years now, and combines camping with friends, food, and music. It basically doesn't get better than Hillside, as you'll see here and here. If you haven't been to Hillside, mark it on your 2016 calendar.

Review: This Is Happy by Camilla Gibb

Tuesday 11 August 2015

I read the first pages of This Is Happy, Camilla Gibb’s first memoir, on the edge of Guelph Lake with a folk festival buzzing behind me. It was the final weekend of July, and I’d snuck away from the chaos: The sweaty bodies fighting for shade, the dancing women in flowing skirts, the line-up for overpriced beer. I found an hour of solitude as the sun began to set and hipster parents called their little ones back toward shore.

This is happy, I thought to myself.

“We come to know ourselves only through stories,” writes Gibb on one of these early pages. “We listen to the stories of others, we inherit the stories of those who came before, and we make sense of our own experiences by constructing a narrative that holds them, and holds us, together.” This Is Happy isn’t Camilla Gibb’s story. It’s her many stories, and don’t let the title fool you. Together they build a far from happy tale.

Divided in four parts — incubate, hatch, roost, and flightThis Is Happy begins where many memoirs do, at the beginning. Gibb’s rocky childhood, marred by her parents’ divorce and her father’s cruel outbursts, sets the scene. In these early days, we see a character struggling to belong, a theme that follows Gibb into an adulthood plagued by restlessness, illness, and profound heartbreak.

Amidst the often excruciating unhappiness found between the covers of This Is Happy, there is a light — a light so pure and fragile that Gibb calls it her egg. Her egg, a daughter, is born just months after Anna, with whom Gibb shared a “thorough, pure, unassailable” love, leaves suddenly, a loss that threatens to destroy Gibb at a time when someone so “pure and innocent and uncontaminated” is waiting to be born.

While the egg brings Gibb a light, it doesn’t cure the sadness that lives inside her, but it does give her a reason to survive. Around the egg, Gibb builds the family she never had with the help of Tita, the nanny, Micah, her drug-addicted brother, and her friend Miles, a “lonely gay.” The egg is at the heart of this chosen family that exists to protect her in the months that follow her birth.
“How do you protect a child from heartbreak? All I know is that the egg wants to be held all the time, and perhaps if I hold her all the time she will know that she is loved in such a fundamental and profound way that when her heart is broken as an adult, she will not fall apart, will know she is still loved and lovable.”
This Is Happy is a stunning memoir shaped by overwhelming highs and excruciating lows. It explores the commonalities all our life stories share: fantasies, failures, losses, and loves. It’s a memoir about finding light in a world that, for some, seems nothing but dark. As a reader, I couldn’t help but feel protective of Gibb, precarious and fragile, as she bears her grief, especially after her relationship ends.
“Grief is the overwhelming result of so many compounded losses that it is impossible to process as a whole. So you don’t. You spend a thousand hours in therapy talking about the thousand things that hurt, one by one, in excruciating detail. That mass of grief holds the loss of the person you loved, the idea of them, the person you were with them, the life you shared, the friends and community and extended family you shared, the idea of who you were together — it challenges the very idea of your life and yourself.
This quotation-heavy review should act as evidence that I loved this book. I loved it in a way I haven’t loved a memoir since I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, my enduring answer to the question: “What’s your favourite book?” I found myself jotting passages from This Is Happy and sharing them with others. This is one of those books you want to tell the world about.

So often, memoirs are steeped in nostalgia, but This Is Happy looks instead toward a brighter future. It may in many ways be a memoir about new parenthood, but it’s about so much more. Ultimately, it’s about the need we all have within us to find a place to belong.

Living Arts: Book Blogger are Liars and Other Random Thoughts

Monday 10 August 2015
This piece originally appeared on the Hamilton Arts Council's Living Arts blog. 

I don’t actually think book bloggers are liars. I’ve floated around the #CanLit blogging scene for enough years to know that anyone who is passionate enough to spend their spare time writing about books for little or no financial reward is usually a lovely person who simply loves the written word. But I can’t help but think some bloggers exaggerate the truth, especially the ones who post multiple perfectly staged photos a week of new releases with unbroken spines intentionally strewn beside a monogrammed mug and a perfectly manicured garden. “Just reading in the garden,” the photo caption probably says, while my cynical mind thinks: Surely nobody has time to read multiple books a week and still keep up on the weeding.

For the better part of a decade, I’ve shared my reading experiences with others through magazine book reviews, my book blog, and on social media. In an increasingly connected world, sharing one’s experiences as a reader and writer is common, but for me, it comes tethered with guilt. I can never read fast enough to keep up with the looming To Be Read (TBR) pile that fills my home. As a reviewer, I’m passed many books. Some of them are brilliant, some of them not so much. Many of them sit on my bookshelf, my desk, and in the bottom of my bag, begging to be read.

My reader’s guilt doesn’t end with my pile of review copies. I bring books home from the library where they sit on my bookshelf for weeks until the fines begin to build. I feel guilty for not reading them and guilty for keeping them from someone who will.

My shelves are even lined with a collection of books that I won’t read because they’ve been signed by Farley Mowat or Lawrence Hill or, most recently, Judy Blume. I have books from my childhood that are nearly spineless from having been read so many times, but I fear that one more read would surely seal their fate. Surely a book that isn’t read isn’t fulfilling it’s bookish destiny. There’s guilt in that, too.

Sometimes I look at my bookshelf and remind myself that I’m going to die before I read every book I own. I’ve never read War and Peace or anything by a Bronte, and I’ll probably die before I do. It’s morbid, but true.

There’s one thing I don’t feel guilty about when it comes to reading, and that’s not finishing books. Life’s too short to read bad books, and I can’t be precious about reaching the last page of a book I’m not enjoying. I’ve also stopped doing reading pledges. One year, in a quest to finish Goodread’s 50 Book Pledge I read only books under 200 pages. Life’s also too short to have your reading habits dictated by a quota.

When I get those short unbridled moments of reading for pleasure, my mind reels. I should be editing, writing, sleeping, unpacking the box that’s sat in my office for a year. We readers aren’t the only ones bridled with guilt. A Google search of writer’s guild draws 433,000 hits, but a search of writer’s guilt has more than 100,000 more.

I recently hate-read Marie Kondo’s hugely successful book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, in which she writes “Do you feel joy when surrounded by piles of unread books that don’t touch my heart?” and the truth is, I do. I may  never read each unread book on my shelf, but I’m willing to try.

A few weeks ago, I met Judy Blume. I say that as though we met over coffee and scones in what I imagine is her book-lined study in New York City. In reality, I was one of nearly a thousand people to line up for a chance to share eight-to-ten seconds with Ms. Blume as she signed copies of her latest book, In the Unlikely Event, in Toronto. But being in the same room with one of my childhood literary heroes reminded me of a lot of things. Hearing her talk about characters that were born in her head, but lived full lives in my own childhood brain, reminded me of reading as a child. More importantly, it reminded me of reading without deadlines. It reminded me of reading without guilt.

The greatest gift we can give ourselves as readers is to read for pleasure. To give ourselves the permission to be selfish and intentional in our reading choices. To create a small impermeable space to recapture the joy of reading.

Junction Flea Visits Hamilton

Saturday 8 August 2015

Toronto's Junction Flea is visiting Hamilton today, and there's still a few hours to check it out. It is taking over City Hall until 5 p.m. I'll keep this post short and sweet to give you time to rush down before every thing is picked over. 

Desmond and Beatrice cookie. Need I say more?

We picked up this gem (and another framed piece) from Hoot Furnishings.

Hamilton Haunts: Quills

Wednesday 5 August 2015

The Paper Trail Diary explores books, zines, crafts, and letter writing, so it's an obvious choice to be among my favourite blogs. When Jessica, the awesomeness behind The Paper Trail Diary, announced she was looking for people to highlight stationery stores around the world, I jumped on the opportunity to sing the praises of one of my favourite haunts — Quills on Locke Street.

Here's the first paragraph of my post, but to read it in its entirety, visit The Paper Trail Diary, and while you're at it, get in touch with her to give your own virtual tour of a favourite stationery store.
On the first Thursday of every month, a bright and open loft space that overlooks Hamilton’s trendy Locke Street becomes alive with the sound of typewriters. For the past few months, Quills, a stationery shop that specializes in far more than paper, has hosted the Locke Street Lettering Society, an evening that encourages people to toss aside their cell phones and write letters instead. Quills supplies not only the vintage typewriters, ink and pens, but even the envelopes and stamps, too.
It's hard not to get shutter happy at Quills, so here are a few photos that appeared on The Paper Trail Diary and a few that didn't.

To read the complete post, visit Paper Trail Diary.
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