Call Me Binoo

binoo's island

Binoo, on his island, reads a book

In 2005, Quebecoise author Dominique Jolin’s popular children’s books were adapted for English television as Toopy and Binoo, an animated series headlined by an oversized, chatty mouse and a little white cat who doesn’t speak at all.

2005 was also the year my fourth son was born, delivered without a doctor in a Fort McMurray hospital during an April snowstorm. No one thinks her kids are ordinary but this boy has made an exceptionally strong case for extraordinariness. Ask anyone.

While he was still in his super-toddler form, his little brother, my fifth son was born. Baby brother’s birth wasn’t ordinary either. But instead of being a cavalcade of feats of frontier hardiness, my ultimate son’s birth drama was launched six weeks too early, beginning in an ambulance and ending in a neonatal special care unit.

By the time itty-bitty, needy brother made it safely home, our super-toddler had started identifying with Jolin’s cartoon mouse character, Toopy. I could tell by the way he called me nothing but Binoo and the way my new baby was renamed “Patchy-Patch” after the stuffed toy Binoo fawns over on the show. We all played along. It was hecka cute, cost us nothing, and benefitted us in ways I didn’t recognize during the haze of caring for five children under the age of eleven.

I’m not sure if Jolin wrote Toupie et Binou as a script for toddlers confronting the harsh fact
that mothers are busy people with more to their lives than indulging the whims of one child, no matter how extraordinary. When we make art, we may wind up expressing truth we don’t otherwise perceive. Either way, Toopy and Binoo is a work of genius.

In print, the script of an old-school episode of Toopy and Binoo would read as an uninterrupted monologue by Toopy, mostly spoken in the second person to Binoo. Toopy prattles on in the forefront while in the background Binoo cares for Patchy-Patch, makes small adjustments to keep Toopy’s surroundings safe, and gently redirects and makes suggestions without a word—no pop psych editorializing about social skills or recycling. Binoo plays along, lets Toopy’s imagination wash over him, engaging it, validating it without adding much to it.

This is what the daily life of a toddler at home with his mother (especially with a little sibling) really looks like. They are together in the same world, but each of them wanders within it. There’s constant interaction but its intensity ebbs and flows. The mother’s role in the child’s imaginary world is a supporting one, like Binoo’s role in Toopy’s world. She participates almost by default and, though it may be unwitting, fosters the child’s sense of being “fabulous” by letting him take the lead in play.

binoo's island2

“Looks like Binoo has finished reading his book…”

For parents, there’s a self-serving side to this arrangement. A Toopy-kid—imaginative, caring, happy—is secure enough to loosen that strangle-hold toddlers like to have on their mothers’ attention. In the “Binoo’s Island” episode, Toopy can’t reach Binoo because he’s sitting on a blanket, wearing his glasses, reading a book. And it is not a crisis. “Looks like Binoo is on his very own island,” Toopy narrates, adding only, “Wow!” He then spends the rest of the show goofing around with the premise of a marooned Binoo but actually leaving Binoo the frick alone until Binoo himself decides he’s finished reading his book.

That’s some social modelling I can get behind.

There are lulls in the story where Binoo is not even looking and Toopy is happy just to be near him. Sometimes when a Toopy-kid is talking, a real Binoo-mom keeps looking down at her preemie infant or at her screen full of work and just says, “Uh-huh, uh-huh…” Toopy can deal with that. He knows he’s still “fabulous” even if other things and people need some space to be fabulous too. He knows the dividing of Binoo’s attention won’t last forever. Maybe Toopy and Binoo makes a case for the value of “quantity time” because parents are human, houses are small, everyone is important, and sometimes quantity time is all we want.

My penultimate son told me as much. One afternoon, I had been on Binoo’s Island for quite a while when he came into the bedroom where I was working on a novel and just stood at the foot of the bed. I looked up, greeted him, and asked if he wanted anything. “I want,” he said, “to be near you.”

Done.

 

 

Book’s Belated Birthday

Roses we raised from a bare root. They smell fantastic.

Roses we raised from a bare root. They smell fantastic.

Goofing around on Google, I read a blog post by author Lauren Carter where she mentions a review I wrote of her debut novel, Swarm. The occasion was the one year anniversary of the release of her book and the post was a list of great, book-related things that have happened to her in that time.

Lauren’s idea struck me as a good one – a theft-worthy one, one to make me feel a little less robbed of the roses we were too frantic to stop to smell this summer when the one year anniversary of my novel came and went without my notice.

Here’s my version of the one-year celebration list. [If your Jenny-is-a-horrible-braggart-alarm is tripping, please close this tab or relax and try to read the list as gratitude – which it is and which ought to be expressed.]

  • My book returned me to Montreal and Toronto and gave me excellent reasons to leave their airports for the first time. Both cities were magnifique with cool people, great art, literary events, and me roaming around reading maps like a dork.
  • My book toured me around most of Alberta (no map required): Lacombe, Edmonton, Calgary, Sherwood Park, Cold Lake, Fort McMurray, Red Deer, Hill Springs, and a quiet homecoming in Raymond, the town where I graduated from high school.
  • Drama! In the peculiar American-Mormon book scene, my book was made a finalist for an award with one hand and branded heresy in a review in the local media with the other hand. Eventually, the review was revised (a mighty feat) and an apology made.
  • Apart from the Salt Lake City newspaper debacle, the book got great reviews and mentions in major newspapers, regional newspapers, trade publications, magazines, and online. It was awesome (in the literal sense that it inspired awe in me) to see thoughtful reviewers finding things in my book I didn’t realize were there. Making art is frickin’ amazing like that. Highlights include Publishers Weekly, National Post, and the sweetest text ever from my dad.
  • The book led me to discover my colleagues – my fabulous, generous colleagues. I wrote my novel in isolation and it wasn’t until it was nearly time to release it that I started meeting the writers, librarians, bloggers, and readers I should have been befriending all along. My book gave me a community.
  • On the merits of the book, I won a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award. I got to take my parents, husband, and a few of my sons to a fancy ceremony in a sandstone mansion before wearing the medal inscribed with my name to vacuum my house.
  • The television appearances were challenging but book promotion also got me spots on radio and podcasts. As long as no one can see me, I enjoy speaking almost as much as writing and these appearances were great pleasures.
  • The book actually sold. It was distributed in large bookstores as well as in indies and online. In Novemeber 2013, it was a regional bestseller according the Edmonton Journal.
  • Meeting new people was wonderful but so was getting back in touch with old friends and long lost family and hearing how the book affected them. Sure, there was lots of “oh, it’s so morbid” but there were also touching tributes I will never forget as long as I have a mind that remembers anything.

Don’t mistake my list for a eulogy. There’s more ahead for Love Letters of the Angels of Death in its second year. More copies have been printed, more book clubs have been booked, and more good news will appear in due time. Thanks for your help and support. Yes, you did – simply reading to the end of this blog post is a show of support.

Fan-girling: Why You Should Go to Book Events

Cover with blurb by Padma Viswanathan

On the front cover of my book — above the title, my name, my magpies – is a blurb. Yes, that’s the technical term for pithy reviews printed on books to help readers judge them by their covers.

Thanks to my resourceful publisher, my book’s blurb is written by internationally published Canadian novelist Padma Viswanathan. Blurbs are usually written by people from an author’s network – teachers, editors, classmates. But Padma read my book and wrote the blurb without knowing me from anywhere. It was extremely generous of her and I am very grateful.

Simple reciprocity isn’t the only reason I’m Padma’s fan. Reading her first novel, I had the impression she understands family much the same way I do. She writes about families that are close, more or less content with each other, and LARGE without making them seem maudlin, boring, or trite. It’s rare in literary fiction.

She writes about people of faith too. She doesn’t do it with the heavy sermonizing of “inspirational” fiction but she also doesn’t soundly denounce faith the way a lot of literary fiction does. She acknowledges the existence and the salience of faith. She writes about it like any powerful, abstract human motivation – like love or hope or fear. This is also rare. This is also me.

After seeing my work called “strange” over and over again (which I love) it’s gratifying to recognize something like my own strangeness in someone else’s stories. It’s validating. It transforms me from lone weirdo to the ultimate form of joiner: the fan-girl. 

And fan-girl I was when I finally met Padma. This summer, the tour for her new book The Ever After of Ashwin Rao brought her back to Audreys Books in Edmonton. I was so there.

If you’ve never been to an event where an author is reading from her own book, go. I won’t say the difference between reading a book and hearing the author read it is the same as listening to the radio and hearing a song performed live. But it is significantly different enough to be worth brushing your teeth and driving downtown.

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books, Edmonton

I’m happy to say that, by now, when I go to local book events I can usually be recognized without having to make a spectacle of myself. In the crowded room, I met Padma and got to thank her in person for the boost she gave my career. I met her dad too. He was greeting people at the foot of the stairs.

Padma’s new novel revolves around the Air India bombing of 1985. The scene she read aloud describes people coping with sudden, violent loss. It’s beautiful and, once again, familiar.

Within the passage she read, Padma included the Gayatri Mantra, a chant her characters use to comfort themselves. If I’d been reading the book alone, in my head, my mental shorthand would have read it as “okay, some Sanskrit” and rushed on to the English translation. But in the bookstore, Padma pronounced all of it. She sang it. And I cried.

I cried because I was surprised and touched by her commitment to the reading – the risk of it, the gift of it. I cried because the sound of scripture being sung by one female voice in that place was strange and out of place enough to feel a little like a miracle. I cried because I already knew, in my own words and feelings, the things she would read next:

The sound did not hide the void, but it filled it with a kind of light: nothing that would stop you from falling, but maybe stop you from being so afraid.

Love and the Library

My husband got me chocolates just like I ordered for Valentines Day today. And, by playing muse to my novel’s “Brigs,” he also indirectly got me this: a recommendation from the Edmonton Public Library’s “Great Stuff” curator, Diego Ibarra. See?

Really needed that today.  Thanks, fellas.

Nothing Comes from Nothing: Reading Eric Freeze’s “Dominant Traits”

Dominant Traits, by fellow “Ridgeview” High School Alumnus, Eric Freeze

I never read faster than when I’ve found a short book written by someone I know.  It’s especially true when that short book by someone I know is also a good book.

That’s the experience I had blazing through Dominant Traits, a collection of short stories by Eric Freeze.  Eric and I went to the same high school – the one I came to in grade eleven and into which I never became fully socially integrated.  He was in the show-choir/theatre scene and I was an egghead poor-girl whose only extra-curricular pursuit was a part-time job.  We were not close.  But in a small school where everyone had some knowledge and experience with each other, Eric and I had good will between us.

This good will, our high school, writing fiction, and seeing it published aren’t the only things Eric and I share.  We have both set stories in the same southern Alberta town where we went to school, the place that inspires his “Ridgeview.”  We both write fiction deeply rooted in real life.  I read his collected stories out of sequence and noticed real life first in “A Prayer for the Cosmos” when the narrator refers to an infamous pep rally where dear old Ridgeview High School made a casual racial slur against an exchange student basketball star playing for a rival school.  Something like that really happened.

Then there was the story about the awkward white rural kid who thought of himself as a rapper.  When I first came to Ridgeview, I assumed this kid must have been playing a character, trying to be funny.  He wasn’t.  It was excruciatingly embarrassing.  I tried to ignore him.  I guess it worked.  I hadn’t thought about him for decades.  He’s probably grown up and put his rapper days behind him.  But then, in Eric’s “Francis the Giant” story, there he is again, not grown up at all, falling down on-stage in this MC Hammer act, and I can’t look away from him.  Eric’s fiction folded the kid’s story into the accordion fan I hadn’t realized it had always been for me.  There was the real kid, his act, my initial confusion about the act, the fictional character arising from the kid, and then the hallucinated transformation the character makes within the story, changing from a scrawny teenager to a giant, leech-flinging monster.  We are everyone around us.  We’re folded into accordion fans with everyone we know.  Their stories are rightfully ours, the opposite sides of our own folded surfaces.

“He’s doing it,” I thought as Eric’s stories started to bend into my own experiences.

I do it too.  Last night, at a literary event in Edmonton, I read one of the chapters from my novel that is crafted very much like an event from my family’s real story.  Afterwards, as I signed her book, a nice lady asked if the book was fiction or not.  I grinned, “Yeah, it’s fiction.  But it cheats.”  She seemed pleased.  Readers love cheating.

Though I’ve been on the giving end – force-feeding my family, friends, and high school classmates doses of our histories, fictionalized, printed, bound between the brittle, narrow margins of my perspective — I don’t think I’d ever been on the receiving end of this kind of storytelling in so direct a way until I read Eric’s book.  Seeing it from the other side had a much greater impact on me than I expected.  I didn’t just smirk knowingly and say, “Ah, yes, it’s this.”  Instead, my heart lurched inside me when I realized Eric’s “Torched” – a piece about a roofing crew grappling with the tenuous mortality of men early in adulthood — includes the story of a boy from our school who suffered an oddball head injury riding a bike in the dark.  Even though he seemed to recover from the accident, he suddenly died from the injury a few years later.  It’s weird but true.  There’s a monument to it in Eric’s book.

It was good for me to read Dominant Traits.  It ambushed me even after a mutual friend, the eye on the cover, and my cursory grasp of ancient Ridgeview gossip warned me the book was closely connected to things I had seen and heard for myself.  Reading it helped me consider my own writing in a new way, with greater empathy, with more tenderness and patience for what I demand of everyone.

Here was another writer not only playing my game but playing much of it on the same field – the same place and time.  Sure, his “Ridgeview” is different from mine.  He lived there as an insider (compared to me, anyways) and as a boy.  Unlike Eric, I would probably never attempt a story about cattle castration.  That is not my Ridgeview.  But I knew the convenience store, the comically wide roads, even the squeak of the gym floor, though I usually only heard it through closed doors.

Closed doors – that brings me to the point where I prove I don’t give old high school classmates free passes in book reviews.  The collection, in many ways, is men’s fiction — if the prevailing literary privilege will allow me to talk of such a thing.  It’s smitten with the male problem of imagining erections and ejaculations are far more salient in the world outside their own pants than they actually are.  The other half of humanity rolls its eyes, scoots to the cold side of the bed, and tells those Very Important erections to just go to sleep, for crying out loud.  I’d like to see a man my age write a meaningful, earnest, literary love story without any penises in it.  I’m not protesting out of stodginess.  I’m protesting because I’m tired and disappointed with male (and often female) writers taking the slimy, easy shortcut to writing about intimacy.  Work at sex and intimacy in a different medium once in a while, fellas.  Feel free to prove me wrong with examples in the comments.

In the age of “post-fiction,” writing from life is accepted and understood, sometimes preferred.  Maybe it’s not considered cheating anymore.  I don’t believe in creation ex nihilo – that everything we know must have been created by some kind of magic out of emptiness.  I don’t believe in it physically or artistically.  Ex nihilo nihil fit.  I’d wager Eric Freeze doesn’t believe in it either.  Everything created is organized out of pieces of things that are here already – Big Bangs exploding whenever someone or something comes crashing through us.

Return of an Edmonton Cleaning-Lady as an Audreys Author

The best thing about being from nowhwere is being from everywhere.

I lived in thirteen different houses by the time I moved away from my happy, nomadic family at age eighteen (only to have them move right along after me a few months later).  That counts as growing up everywhere doesn’t it?

When I made my first solo move, the place I went was Edmonton, Alberta.  Don’t know Edmonton?  It’s a metropolitan area of about a million people at 54 degrees latitude.  If anyone’s thinking, “That must be a pretty great city for people to put up with living that far north,” they’re right.   I went there to get an education at the University of Alberta.  I met my husband on Whyte Avenue, earned my degree, published my first guest column in the Edmonton Journal, and my two eldest children were born in Edmonton.  I was there for eight years — longer than I’ve lived in any city.  My Edmonton days were happy but not glamorous.  Most of the time, I lived in Strathcona walk-up apartments like this:

The Apollo Apartments, just off Whyte Avenue

The Apollo Apartments, just off Whyte Avenue

Even this place was only affordable because I worked as the resident manager and cleaning-lady. I don’t live inside the city limits anymore but if the weather is good, I can get to them in under an hour.  Edmonton is still one of my many hometowns — part of the everywhere I’m from.  In fact, several of the chapters of the book I wrote are set in city — University of Alberta campus, the High Level Bridge, Cloverbar Waster Transfer Station — all Edmonton.

This coming Tuesday night, I’m bringing my book home to Edmonton.

A few weeks ago, my novel was nicely reviewed by Edmonton Journal book columnist (and fellow newly debuted local author) Michael Hingston.  He called it, “A surprising, thoughtful and captivating debut that uses death to illuminate all that’s at stake in life itself.”

The good local review sets the stage for my author reading hosted by Edmonton’s indie bookstore mainstay, Audreys Books. (No, there isn’t supposed to be an apostrophe in the name.  It refers to more than one Audrey and is grammatically above reproach.)  Audreys is a place little girls slogging away at their Arts degrees, and young-mother-cleaning-ladies writing indignant guest columns keep in their minds as the setting for scenes from the futures they want for themselves.  The store is a landing-pad for Edmonton writers in traditional, book-length publishing.  I am beyond happy to be appearing there.

And since my publicist, Sarah, is a total animal, I’m getting right up in Edmonton’s face about my homecoming.  I’m doing a radio interview with talk radio station 630 CHED on Monday, Sept 23, at around 7:20am.  The morning of the reading itself, Tuesday Sept 24, I’ll be interviewed outside the safe, blind box of radio on television with the CTV Edmonton Morning show.  I’ll be on for just a few minutes at around 8:40am.  So crazy!  And if I botch it, remember that we must never speak of this again.

First Review of My Book!

Montreal Review of Books looks at my novel in the Summer 2013 Issue

Montreal Review of Books looks at my novel in the Summer 2013 Issue

The summer issue of Montreal Review of Books is out today.  And I am thrilled to report it includes Elise Moser’s review of my soon-to-be-released novel.  It’s a feature review complete with quotations from emails Elise and I exchanged.  Read it here:

http://mtlreviewofbooks.ca/reviews/love-letters-angels-death/

Here’s the first paragraph:

“I think Babies “R” Us is one of the saddest places there is – everyone looking to buy something that will make a very traumatic and life changing experience into something more manageable.” Like her main characters, Jennifer Quist does not hesitate to express firmly held, intelligent opinions. That’s her talking about birth. You should hear what she has to say about death…