Meeting Margaret Atwood

I met Margaret Atwood last night. She did a reading from her new story collection, Stone Mattress, and an on-stage interview with fellow Canadian author Merilyn Simonds. Atwood was stellar. I’ve got to admit, I had heard she was arrogant in person, but my impression was one of confidence (and rightfully so, considering what a literary giant she has become), humour, and sass. She kept us all laughing with her witty remarks and pointed observations. I loved her!


Meeting Margaret Atwood last night at the Alice Munro Short Story Festival in Blyth, ON. I’m on the right, my friend Elizabeth is on the left.

I sat in the audience wracking my brain for the first Atwood book I ever read. There have been a lot over the years, especially having done a degree in English literature from University of Toronto, where local Atwood is much beloved. I remembered suddenly when I saw it in the hands of a girl behind me in the book-signing line. It was an old yellowed paperback, “Wilderness Tips,” that I found on my mother’s bookshelf when I was about 10 or 11 years old.

In retrospect, I should not have been reading the book at that age, which is likely why my mother confiscated it soon afterward… but not soon enough. Images from those short stories were permanently seared into my mind.

There was the older female camp counselor who seduces a younger boy behind a bush. Also, the woman who has an affair with a married man, only to have an ovarian cyst that gets pickled in formaldehyde on her mantel, nicknamed Furball. The mistress describes her lover’s wife as someone who has probably sex with rubber gloves on, checking it off her list of unpleasant household chores. That description made a big impression on my highly impressionable mind. I have never looked at rubber gloves in the same way again.

It was the first adult book I’d ever read. Needless to say, I learned a lot. Since then, I’ve gotten lost in many of her famous stories. I read The Blind Assassin in the hot mid-summer of 2009, beached like a whale on my bed, waiting for my first child to be born. Alias Grace accompanied us on our honeymoon the following year; I finished it on the plane home from Costa Rica. The Robber Bride I read while living alone in a Toronto apartment, and the main character was so disturbing that it made me highly jumpy for days. For Surfacing, I was newly pregnant and highly nauseous with my second child, commuting back and forth to U of T for my final year, taking a fourth-year Can Lit seminar that I loved. The Handmaid’s Tale I listened to on CD while driving.

To put a face to all those works of literary art was truly special. I want to make more effort to attend readings and workshops, to immerse myself more in that world that I dream of being a part of someday. In the meantime, I’ll just keep writing, which is precisely what Atwood told all of us aspirational writers to do last night.

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Day Trip on the Bruce Peninsula

It’s important to play hooky from real life once in a while. I pulled the boys out of school for the day and, together with my cousin Elanor who has been visiting all week, drove to Bruce Peninsula National Park for a day of exploring.

Much to my amazement, the boys had full-on tantrums when I informed them that they weren’t going to school and would spend the day exploring. (Apparently their friends are cooler than their mom, even at this young age.) But then I overheard four-year-old L. telling his older brother not to worry, that “adventures are way more funner than school.”

When they found a baby snake lying in the middle of the hiking trail, they immediately announced it was “the best day ever.” The snake was perfectly still, not moving even when I prodded it gently with a stick. At first I thought it was injured or dead, but soon after picking it up, it started to wiggle like mad; it must have been playing dead. The boys were over the moon. They had a new pet – a wild and active one at that – and coddled it for the rest of the hike.


Baby snake! It was also a great source of amusement to the group of Asian tourists following behind us on the trail. They all wanted pictures too.


Little boys are incapable of resisting the urge to climb anything.

The approach to Indian Head Cove never fails to leave me breathless. It is so unexpected, so stunning and rugged, the water so turquoise. I particularly love it in the off-season, when there are fewer tourists. Elanor was amazed by it: “I can’t believe this is in Ontario!” she gasped. It’s true – the water looks more Caribbean than typically Canadian.


Indian Head Cove at the Bruce Peninsula National Park


Indian Head Cove – with some brave (or insane) teenagers jumping in the frigid water on the other side!

We scrambled over the rocks, me trying not to nag the boys too much about being careful. They raced like little mountain goats over the crevices and boulders, elated with this unusual field trip. We squeezed through the tunnel that goes down to the famous Grotto, a cave with an underwater hole inside that glows bright blue, revealing the distant exit to Georgian Bay. (My brother has swum it many times, but you couldn’t pay enough to do it!) We picnicked on the rocks of the Cove, enjoying homemade bread, hummus, and crispy apples.



Elanor down at the opening of the Grotto


Picnic on the rock beach (me and baby M.)

It was glorious – except for the garbage that I could see everywhere. It’s hidden away, jammed in cracks and behind trees and rocks, but it’s still disappointingly present. How anybody in their right mind could contaminate such a spectacular place, I do not understand. There were plastic water bottles lying around, a smashed wine bottle, even a dirty disposable diaper. It was disgusting.

We left the National Park and headed for Lion’s Head, a small town on the east side of the Peninsula that I’ve never visited in all the years living here. We went in search of caves, but first stopped at a cute little 1960s-style diner and bakery called Rachel’s for a quick coffee, lemon square, and ice cream for the boys.

We hiked along a portion of the Bruce Trail, which runs right through Lion’s Head, and soon found William’s Caves along the side of the trail. They are impressive gaping mouths of rock that loom up out of nowhere. Signs warn hikers not to enter, so we merely approached the entrance and looked in, the boys begging me to go further.


The edge of the Niagara Escarpment along the Bruce Trail


Pretending to be hunters in the forest

Rain began to fall and we raced back to the car, arriving just in time. An older woman stood nearby, asking about our hike. She lives right near the trail and when I told her about the “Do Not Enter” signs, she scoffed. “What? Signs? Aw, I’m no citified person obsessed with safety. You have to take those kids in! The caves are wonderful. They go so far back, they’d love it.” I promised her we’d return another time, since the rain was now heavier and the boys were worn out from their trip.

We will be back. Our little road trip was an important reminder of what glorious sights there are in our own backyard, a short drive away. How lucky we are to live in this beautiful place.

Reading away all my stress

My life has been crazy all winter long, ever since the enormous 14-member Syrian refugee family arrived in town at the end of January. Fortunately I share the responsibility of caring for them with five other fabulous women, all of whom have thrown themselves, heart and soul, into the task of resettlement; but still, there are days when I feel completely overwhelmed.

It’s a bit like having 14 extra kids who live in a house on the other side of town. The responsibility of ensuring they do well, attend school, learn English, keep their pantry and fridge stocked, respond to government correspondence, manage their finances and, most of all, figure out how to navigate this strange and foreign place with confidence – all of it weighs heavily on me. I want them to succeed; I want this whole crazy idea of mine to be successful; I want to prove to the many naysayers that this was, and continues to be, the right thing to do.

But there’s a cost that comes with taking on such responsibility. I became obsessed with my new volunteer job. There came a point where I no longer recognized myself in the person who was constantly checking email, organizing volunteer schedules over Facebook late at night, texting colleagues constantly over minute details, making countless phone calls each day. As exciting as the new responsibility was, it also made me stressed out – irritable with my husband, impatient and snappish with my kids, physically exhausted by the end of the day, not to mention emotionally fragile and prone to crying at odd times.

That’s when I realized something had to change. I was shortchanging my family, my actual employer (TreeHugger), and myself while trying too hard to save the world. I’ve had to step back, withdraw somewhat from my involvement with the family while remembering to engage more with my own family, which of course should always be my greatest priority.

My forced withdrawal has, in part, taken the form of nighttime reading. I’m back to my old routine of sitting down on the sofa after the boys are in bed, cup of tea in hand and a good book on my lap. Sometimes I turn on the fireplace. Almost always I leave my iPhone in the kitchen, ringer turned way down, even off if I’m feeling particularly rebellious (or is it righteous?).


Some of the literary gems I’ve recently enjoyed, although I must admit I had to return ‘Wages of Rebellion’ to the library before I got around to reading it, although my husband did and filled me in!

Then I lose myself in other worlds for a few hours, which is always the greatest remedy for reminding oneself that one is only a small fish in a very big pond – that no matter how serious the refugee work I’m doing may seem, it’s only a tiny piece of the puzzle. Non-fiction books throw everything into perspective, while fiction simply provides glorious escape.

What have I been reading?

I loved Juliana Barbassa’s brand new critique of Rio de Janeiro, called “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God.” After spending a month there in December 2014, I felt like I left Rio with more questions than I had when I first arrived, and Barbassa’s literary offering was like an encyclopedia full of fascinating answers and explanations for what makes Rio the insane yet spectacular place it is. I’d recommend it, but then it’s kind of one of those books that only truly has meaning if you know the place it describes. Still, if Brazil intrigues you on any level, read it!

This Is Happy” is Camilla Gibb’s new memoir. Gibb is a Canadian writer who achieved fame for “Sweetness in the Belly,” a novel set in England and Ethiopia, which I’d read last year. I have a thing for memoirs written by modern young women, and “This Is Happy” did not disappoint. Gibb is a lesbian who struggles to get pregnant for a long time, only to have her long-term partner break up with her soon after she does become pregnant. It’s a heartbreaking account that moved me deeply – perhaps because there were similarities with my first pregnancy. I read the book in two days and then stalked Gibb’s Facebook page and Twitter account for weeks later because I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I want to meet her!

Robert Galbraith’s murder mysteries, a.k.a. the marvelous J.K. Rowling. Yes, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, Rowling does have a very intriguing series of mysteries written under a pseudonym. The three books in the series (so far) started out normal, then got progressively more insane, until the last one completely blew my mind… in a bad way. I read it in a mingled state of disbelief and horror, wishing I’d never learned about such evil in the world and feeling selfishly disappointed that these kinds of deviant behavior would even interest Rowling, who seems so… perfect. Ugh. I needed a lengthy shower after that last book, and wished I could scrub my mind too.

more books

Cleaning advice, gory mystery, and Stalin’s Russia…

And yet, Rowling is such a good writer. I will keep reading those darn Galbraith books for as long as she publishes them, holding my mental breath all the while and putting up with her grotesque descriptions of human perversion, just because she spins such a freaking good tale.

Other recent books include “The Golden Son” by Shipi Somaya Gowda, author of the famous Secret Daughter book; it did not disappoint, another light-hearted story spanning the cultural divide between rural India and urban America.

The Silver Star” by Jeanette Walls, writer of “The Glass Castle,” was a delightful thrift-store find that kept me occupied for a weekend; it’s the gripping story of two neglected sisters who face some serious harassment and must figure out how to handle it, while repairing their own relationship.

The list goes on, but that’s enough for now. Any suggestions?

Foray into Vegetarianism

One of my New Year’s resolutions has been to eat less meat. For me, it’s an environmental issue far more than an ethical or health one. I’ve been strongly influenced by recent articles and studies on the global temperature being affected by animal agriculture and documentaries such as Cowspiracy (watch it on Netflix) that explain how reducing and/or eliminating meat is the single most effective thing one can do to decrease one’s carbon footprint. The evidence is there, even if it isn’t what I want to hear.

At first I thought I’d go full-out vegetarian, but then I realized that would be far too much of a shock to my body, my family, my cooking habits, and my insistence on eating whatever is served to me wherever I go. (That last point is something I’ll never be able to let go. I believe too strongly in accepting hospitality graciously at all times, even if it isn’t what I’d choose on my own.) Then there’s the freezer-full of locally raised, grass-fed lamb and pork that I couldn’t ignore. I’ve settled on significant reduction (meat only twice a week) and so far it’s going well.

The family doesn’t mind. Even Jason, my body-building-protein-addict husband, says he hasn’t noticed a difference. I make a point of incorporating protein into every meal – beans, lentils, tofu, sprouted mung beans, paneer, eggs, etc.

Interestingly, the further I move away from meat, the less appealing it is. The impossible happened this morning when I came downstairs, smelled the bacon Jason was cooking for breakfast, and felt repulsed. The kitchen smelled disgustingly animal-like, and I had to open a window to stop from gagging. Bacon!! I used to love bacon!

I’ve gotten several new cookbooks out of the library, which helps immensely when it comes to figuring out dinner. I’d heard a lot about Ottolenghi, the Middle Eastern-inspired cookbook named after a famous restaurant in London, but hadn’t actually used it until recently. Even though it contains meat recipes, there’s a wonderful focus on vegetables that most conventional cookbooks don’t have. I’ve made lots of delicious things, including a delicious version of Egyption kosherie – one of my favourite lentil dishes. I also love Anna Jones’ A Modern Way to Eat.


It’s an ongoing challenge. Every day I face the question of what to make for dinner and it always takes greater planning than simply thawing out a package of sausage or chicken. Slowly but surely, I’m building up a bigger and better repertoire of vegetarian mains. Hopefully it becomes easier over time.

Authoritative Apple Cake

Last week I made a delicious apple cake when a friend came over for tea. My boys each ate a hefty slice, then asked for more. I said no. There was one slice left in the pan, which I was saving for their dad. By the time my friend left, the last slice had disappeared and two guilty-looking boys admitted to disobedience.

While the act itself isn’t such a big deal – it’s just a piece of cake – it’s the principle that bothers me, especially because we’ve been having issues lately with blatant disobedience. The boys are in the “ignoring” stage, where they pretend not to hear their names being called or instructions being given, if they don’t like them.

I would call us authoritative parents, as unpopular and shocking as that may sound. We live in an era where mainstream parenting tends to be soft, easy-going, and liberal; where the children’s rights are considered on par with adults’ and their opinions taken into consideration whenever it comes time to make a family decision. While it works for many parents, it just doesn’t sit right with me.

I love and respect my kids, but I expect them to do what I say – without me having to repeat it over and over again, or beg, plead, cajole, and bargain in order to make it happen. Sometimes I ask what they want for dinner, but every single time I expect them to eat whatever is put in front of them – all of it, not just a few bites – before they get any dessert. And never are they allowed to say “No!” when I tell them to do something.

Needless to say, the cake-eating incident required more than a talk about not listening. It needed a punishment of sorts that could double as restitution for taking something that was not theirs.

The solution? They had to bake me another cake to replace the piece that was eaten.

This did not go over well. They complained and whined, especially when they had to go on a special errand to get ingredients. But it was interesting to witness their transformation over the course of baking. I could hear them getting more and more excited, helping to peel apples and measure flour, grease the pan and whisk the ingredients.

By the time that cake was placed on the table for dessert – and we all got a slice – they were beaming with pride. It was a good parenting moment – a punishment that turned into a wonderful learning opportunity and skill-building project.

apple cake

Here is the recipe for “Easy-As-Pie Apple Cake,” another gem from my new Food52 baking book that I’m loving! (See last post) It really does taste like a pie, which may sound weird, but you’ve got to make it to see for yourself.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 egg
2 cups diced apples
1/2 cup toasted pecans, chopped (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt.

Using an electric mixer, beat the butter, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg until pale in colour and fluffy. Add the egg and beat until smooth. Add the flour mixture and mix again until smooth; the batter will be very thick. Stir in the apples and pecans. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and spread it evenly.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean and the top is a nice golden colour.

Let cool slightly before serving. Serve with whipped cream or good vanilla ice cream.