When you move back to your hometown, nobody warns you about the absence of time. The way you can hold your palm to things that have happened. You can watch them happen again, they do happen again, it’s so easy, and makes so much sense. You don’t even have to try. You can talk with people who have missed you, hated you, forgiven you, loved you, and you remember, and you forget again.

You can still be surprised, if you want to be.

Related: Memory things.

As I wrote about last year when I read Ethan Frome, descriptions of meals in books are one of the things that really catch my attention when I’m reading. I like to imagine how all the elements of the meal work together.

I read this description recently in Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age:

Sadie brought her a tray full of chicken soup and chopped liver and cold chicken and cold salmon and salad and fruit and gherkins and water biscuits…

What I love about this is that it’s so much. Almost too much food, it seems at first. When I first read it I imagined plates groaning under the weight of meat and gherkins. But really it’s probably small amounts of cold meat, leftover from the day before, and just a few gherkins, and then it seems okay. Good. In the book, the character describes the meal as, “infinitely reassuring,” and I tend to agree.

I have a friend who has a knack for assembling delicious, cohesive meals out of varied ingredients, particularly for picnics or otherwise leisurely summer eating. Recently she brought small slices of quiche to a picnic, and I thought, “Of course!” It made so much sense, but I never would have thought of it myself.

In The Ice Age, the character arrives at a friend’s home after a long day of traveling. She isn’t expected, she just shows up, but her friend (well, her friend’s relative), pulls together an “infinitely reassuring” dinner for her, the kind she needs at that moment. I like to imagine my friend is the same way, and that if I got off a plane and went directly to her house, she’d rummage in fridge and cupboards and the result would be infinitely reassuring.

I’d like to strengthen my weak skill for last-minute meal assembly. Mine always seem to lack some vital component, or overdo it on one thing, and the end result is wobbly, unfinished. I suppose this is another reason I’m drawn to food descriptions in books.

Perhaps I should stock up on water biscuits?

In 2010, I completed NaNoWriMo. I wrote a novel called Practice, which was true. It was practice. I’d written two book-length things as a teenager – and I don’t say this to make myself sound impressive. One of them was basically the plot of The Outsiders, except the Ponyboy character was a girl. Plus, these were book-length things for 13-year-olds. By contrast, my NaNoWriMo book was just over 52,000 words, and I was proud of it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the 50,000 word target was meant to be a jumping-off point, not the end.

But by then I’d given up novel writing anyway. I mined Practice for a short story or two, and asserted I wasn’t the novel-writing sort. I didn’t have it in me. Short stories were my thing, and forever would be.

So I’m not really sure how I knew I would start writing a novel this April. Every day I’m surprised I’m still doing it, that I still have something to write about. I’ve never had this experience before, this entire world just under the surface, waiting patiently for me to haul it up into the light. I can dip my hand down into it, take a few things, return later for more. I can take my time writing certain scenes. I can devote entire paragraphs to topics that would weigh a short story down. It’s an odd sensation, but I’m enjoying it.

That’s not to say it’s easy. It’s not. But it makes more sense in my life than it ever did before, and I want it to stay.

Nothing changes, maybe even me. I wrap my scarf around my neck three times and nestle in. I drive my father’s car in the dark, in the rain, winding my way around random streets, wandering until I run out of coffee. Or I’m an early morning passenger with a bagel in my hand, passing my husband his coffee as we wander together, wondering how our lives will be next year.

He drops me off at the station and the sun is bright. On the train it’s quiet and outside it’s warm and I walk to the place where my friends are waiting, and we spend our time together in such pleasant and easy conversation, and I sit my friend’s toddler on my shoulder and the baby laughs and strokes my hair and I feel so lucky to know her, and to know them all. On the train heading back I lean my head against the humming window, a head full of plans, and it feels like such an end-of-the-year cliché to realize what was always obvious, and nothing and everything seems possible all at once.

I wondered how it was that I had never heard of this book and its extraordinarily promising young author. I asked around, but no one seemed to know or remember Millen Brand, or his books. It’s somewhat frightening to learn that good books – even books heralded in their time – can disappear so quickly and completely.

[. . .]

All of Brand’s work is modest and sincere, two qualities that are undervalued, if not dismissed, in modern fiction . . . Despite the titillating claims of the paperback reprints, there is nothing sensational about The Outward Room. Its power comes from its tenderness and quiet. As Brand himself observes, near the end of the book, ‘the evidences of winter were small, only to be seen, like the signs of spring, by the heart that feels small changes.’

– Peter Cameron, in the afterword to The Outward Room

When it comes to books, I tend to rely unquestioningly on the recommendations of my friend Amy. It isn’t that I dismiss other recommendations outright or find no value in them. It’s just that, somehow, Amy intuits what kind of book will fire up the electrical connections in my brain like no other. It’s especially impressive to me because people’s taste in books is so personal, so hard to pinpoint. So I have to publicly thank her for recommending The Outward Room to me.

I long ago realized I was terrible at book reviews, so I will let the above quotes from the book’s afterword stand in for my own words.

Days that feel like older days. Lazy suburban summer drives, windows open, listening to a short story read on the radio. Sitting by the lake for an interminable length of time. Browsing at the bookstore I used to spend so much time in, tripping over the carpet. While my mother looks at religion books, I turn around and consider the wicca books, the angel books, remember my teenage bedroom full of ornate candlesticks I imagined would fit in in an Anne Rice novel. A woman approaches and pulls a tarot book off the shelves. She reads a couple of pages and puts it down. I see her ahead of us in line later, holding an interior design magazine, and I wonder if she was remembering too.

 

I tried for a week and a half to get through 23 pages of an Ayelet Waldman novel I ended up abandoning, but have spent the past two hours completely engrossed in a book based on the Dragon Age video game series.

Draw from that any conclusions you will.

(I was surprised to find the Dragon Age novel has a higher average rating on Goodreads than the Waldman novel.)

Reading descriptions of food in books is maybe one of my favourite things. I often read the descriptions two or three times, imagining how the combinations work and comparing the food to what I’m already familiar with.

Recently I read a food description in Ethan Frome that was among the most unusual I’ve seen:

She set the lamp on the table, and he saw that it was carefully laid for supper, with fresh doughnuts, stewed blueberries and his favourite pickles in a dish of gay red glass.

I read this on the bus and put the book on my lap and looked out the window, thinking about it. Donuts, blueberries, and pickles. Yes, the donuts were plain cake or yeast donuts and not the glazed and sprinkled things we think of now, but it still sounds so odd.

And I kind of want to try it.

My friend Teri has an article in the latest Ricepaper, titled Between Representations: Filipinos in Canadian Literature. Teri’s one of my favourite writers so I am always eager to read anything she writes, but I was especially excited to read this.

She and I are both half-Filipino, and have talked in the past about how we express that in our writing. For my part, I’d say about half of my stories have either fully Filipino or half-Filipino characters in them, but for the most part they’re still pretty “Canadian,” which is a term that I personally find fairly fluid, depending on who’s using it.

In the article, Teri writes about the difficulty in finding portrayals of Filipinos in Canadian writing that go beyond the usual nanny or maid cliché, or address it in a deeper way. With my own characters, I wonder sometimes if having these first-generation Canadians of Filipino background is enough. Shouldn’t they be doing something more? And then I can’t think of what that could possibly be. Do I want to have the characters in there to teach the world about pancit, or maybe about the cultural repercussions of hundreds of years of Spanish rule followed by a shorter period of American influence? Or do I want to have them just there playing their parts in the story, being a little bit Filipino and a little bit other things, like me and all the other first-generation people I know? Maybe having them just there is enough, maybe it’s more than enough right now.

I don’t have an easy answer to these questions, but I do know that not having these characters in there at all seems weird and wrong to me, and I like having them, these little blips of a world that some people might not know too much about.

Anyway, I didn’t intend for this to be a huge post about myself. I highly recommend picking up a copy of Ricepaper and reading Teri’s article! You can order print and digital copies here if you can’t find any in your local bookstore.

Because I’ve been desperately missing the Badlands this winter, here’s a look back at one of my favourite places. First, back in 2007:

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And in 2011, when you could still go out there and walk around:

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I usually visit in the fall, but I think this year I’ll have to go at the very first whiff of spring.