‘Alone in the Classroom’ in Ottawa Citizen’s Top Ten

The Ottawa Citizen’s Top 10 Canadian Books for 2011 leads off with Alone in the Classroom: “Ottawa’s Elizabeth Hay, 2007 Giller winner for Late Nights on Air, returns with her fourth novel, a rich story of interweaving human relationships and generations of a family.”

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It’s tough to be sleepless at this time of year since we turn down the heat before going to bed. At two a.m. it’s on with my bathrobe, on with my llama wool socks and downstairs to hot milk, a shawl around my shoulders, a blanket over my knees. I start to read the first story in Transgressions by the Kentucky writer Sallie Bingham. “Apricots” is about having too much fruit and deciding to make jam. You see the jam being made and you see the story being made, one ingredient at a time.

What a lovely thing to be reading in the middle of the night, the Christmas tree dark beside me, Father Christmas on the coffee table.

Father Christmas I pore over every December, entranced by the book-wide panels of changing sky that St. Nick and his reindeer travel through on their annual round. Raymond Briggs has them pass through every weather and every hour: snow, rain, lightning, fog, first light, sunrise, morning. Did Paterson Ewen ever see this book? I think of his brilliant horizontal paintings on gouged plywood of atmospheric phenomena – rain, clouds, comets, sun, moon, storms.

It’s the progression from one thing to the next that enchants. The progression from a barren apricot tree finally bearing too much fruit to a 63-year-old woman deciding she will have to make jam but needs some help, to her selecting a young man to be the extra hand and thereby overturning her life. The progression of Father Christmas from his cozy arctic solitude out into the great world of skies and rooftops and chimneys that lead him into one home after another, until exhausted he makes the return trip to his own creaturely comforts of warm stove, hot bath, roast turkey, cognac, cocoa, bed, and beloved sleep.

One thing summons up another and you have a story. “And she longed to know what the apricots had meant, and continued to mean, even as she realized with dismay that her life was falling apart.” The falling apart is a late and embarrassing harvest that overwhelms her. What will she do with it?

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Delacroix Never Won a Prize

I keep eight or so quotations on a corner of my desk, written on slips of paper and held together by a paper clip, reaching for them when I’m low or lost or ashamed of myself.

Here’s one. Jean Renoir writing about his famous father. The impassioned serenity of the final period, ‘a question of being alert and not getting nervous’. He approached with less fear, having discovered that the hunter’s buckshot was love continually renewed.

Renoir, My Father rescued me one lonely winter’s night in 2010 when I was stranded in London, Ontario. I had given a reading in the afternoon, then been taken to a hotel, deposited there, and I had nothing to do until my train left the next morning. I knew a part of London, since my parents had lived there for many years, so I felt doubly alone or doubly strange. I decided to go for a walk and soon found myself on a typically long, cold, wind-blown street with nothing at all of interest until I came upon a used bookstore and fell into its arms. I poked about for an hour, reasonably happy, but finding nothing I wanted to buy, then instantly joyous when I saw Renoir, My Father on one of the shelves. I knew it; I had borrowed it from the library years ago and loved it and always wanted a copy of my own. For that night and the following day on the train, it made my life worth living.

I wasn’t even a great fan of Renoir’s paintings – they were too blurry, too marshmallowy for me. But I loved reading about his progress from boyhood to great old age, his discoveries and decided opinions in the notebook he kept. The two I remember best: An artist must eat sparingly and give up a normal way of life, and Delacroix never won a prize. The second is especially useful to remember.

A few weeks ago I happened to see one of Renoir’s last paintings and looked at it for a long time, disarmed, finally appreciating the loose, breathing brushwork that brought forth the full body of the young woman and her incredible skin.

As for the hunter’s buckshot being love continually renewed, I understand that better too, reminded of something my husband said to me many years ago. “If you could only enjoy the people you write about,” he said, “instead of forever criticizing them. No matter how flawed, if you would only enjoy them!” Love continually renewed is the weapon that brings your characters close, or brings you close to them. You have them in your sights and your sights aren’t narrow. It has nothing to do with letting them off easy. It’s something else entirely.

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‘Alone in the Classroom’ a Globe Best Book 2011

“Through the figure of a beloved schoolteacher aunt, Hay’s narrator in this splendid novel sets out to discover the experiences that shaped her parents, and herself. In 1929, Connie Flood encounters, while teaching in Saskatchewan, a grim principal, self-important and determined to castigate. Antagonist to this sadist is a dyslexic boy whom Connie tutors.”

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‘Alone in the Classroom’ an Amazon Best Book of 2011

Read about it here. This list represents Amazon’s top ten Canadian fiction books in 2011.


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Phil Hall’s ‘Killdeer’

Tomorrow my mother turns 92. Yesterday she was so agitated and confused. “The day has been sloppish, sloppish!” she said. “Just sloppish.” My lovely little crooked bird of a mother. I persuaded her to let me wash her hair in the bathroom sink and from under the tap, her face nearly pressed against the basin, she said, “I miss your Dad.”

She looked so much better with her hair washed and combed and pinned with three bobby pins instead of the usual ten or twenty she jabs into place. I got her to stretch out on the chesterfield and rest her head on a pillow, and I read to her. Usually I read things she has written herself, her painting memories or her memories of her childhood lake near Renfrew, and she gives me credit for writing them no matter how often I say, “No, all of the credit goes to you, Professor Higgins.”

I know what I’ll read to her next. Killdeer, Phil Hall’s new collection of poems, which I’m reading now with such love and envy. She will respond to them as she responds to music. In these realms she is as discerning as ever. We took her on Saturday to the live broadcast from the Met of Philip Glass’s opera about Gandhi. At the end she reached for my hand and said in a choked voice, “That was beautiful. It was just wonderful.”

Though her mind misplaces so much – she even misplaces who I am at times – she remembered the opera two, three, four days later.

The poems in Killdeer will do the same. They’ll clear away all the debris in her mind.

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In Celebration of Bookstores

Two weeks ago I drove to a small miracle of a bookstore in the Ottawa Valley, the Arnprior Book Shop forty-five minutes northwest of Ottawa. Then last week I dropped into the London Review Bookstore near the British Museum. In each case, lovely cafés were attached – good coffee and cakes – the pleasures of the flesh matching the pleasures of the mind. Both shops had the feel of relaxed but heady village life. They were cozy, yet full of doorways to all sorts of worlds.

In the London Review Bookstore, I found a book I’ve wanted to read ever since my literature-studying son raved about it a few months ago. Not The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, the new Booker winner, but the original The Sense of an Ending published in 1966 by the critic Frank Kermode. Barnes borrowed the title and who can blame him. It’s a great title. Given the struggle I have with endings, I fell for it hard.

I bought poetry too, a couple of books by Louise Glück, whose work I admire deeply. In London I always reconnect with my fifteen-year-old self, the girl who moved with her family to England for a year and discovered one day in grammar school that she could write poems of a sort, and thereafter wanted to be a writer.

During that year in England, 1967, the world also opened up for my mother. She comes from the Ottawa Valley, not far from Arnprior, and grew up wanting to be a painter but never had the chance. In London that changed. She took art classes every day for the first time in her life. She was 48. These places, London and the Ottawa Valley, fold us together into one aspiring story. “I spent the year doing what I wanted to do,” my mother said to me yesterday. “That’s why it was so wonderful.”

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On the road

What I take with me when I travel. Ear plugs. Sleeping pills (each divided in four). Books. This time American Pastoral by Philip Roth, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Tylenol.

Umbrella, since I’ll be in Vancouver for several days. Blackberry with charger. Lip balm. In my carry-on bag, a streamlined wardrobe for ten days.

An extra notebook in case I do more writing than I usually do when I travel.

Coral necklace for good luck.

Certain phone numbers, even ones I have by heart, since fatigue destroys memory.

Elegant boots. Cold cream in a small enough container that airport security doesn’t confiscate it. French magazine and dictionary in order to work on my French, though I wonder if I will open them.

A bar of chocolate and a bag of almonds so as not to be stranded by hunger.

Compare this with Huckleberry Finn. “I took the bucket and gourd; took a dipper and a tin cup, and my old saw and two blankets, and the skillet and the coffee-pot.”

Travelling light.

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Six Books I’m Rereading

First posted on Canadian Bookshelf canadianbookshelf.com/

The Man from the Creeks, Robert Kroetsch, 1998, New Canadian Library

  • Kroetsch’s sudden death in June made me pick up his last novel once again. I came to it for the first time a few years ago, ten years after it was published (I often come late to books) and fell in love with its tender, amused and desperate tone. What underlies the novel/adventure/yarn/love story is Robert Service’s ripping poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” The poem calls to the storyteller/poet in Kroetsch and the resulting 307 pages are perfect.

Secular Love, Michael Ondaatje, 1984, Coach House Press

  • Summer poetry – open, sensual, secretive, full of motion, full of love and humour. People often remark about the poet in the novelist when they speak about Ondaatje, less so about the storyteller in the poet. This collection gives us characters and place in all their dramatic singularity: marital breakup, drunkenness, sudden love, deep and lasting attachments to rivers, farms, fields, friends. I’ve read it many times and I am always seduced, inspired and envious.

The Outlander, Gil Adamson, 2007, Anansi

  • The Some Like it Hot of novels with a great beginning that gallops all the way home to a great ending. It’s a tale of a runaway widow being hunted by two vengeful brothers-in-law and it brims with natural poetry and action. On every level it is electrifying and unforced. I’m rereading it to see how she pulled it off, and what I might learn.

A Long Continual Argument, The Selected Poems, John Newlove, 2007, Chaudiere Books

  • I open this book in the middle and wonder why I read anyone else. He was a very difficult man (he liked to say that for his sins he lived in Ottawa) with such a pure voice, mordant and aching. He says things no one else says, and that I don’t realize I need to hear until I hear them. This is an excellent posthumous collection published by a small, valiant Ottawa publisher.

The Elizabeth Stories, Isabel Huggan, 1984, Oberon

  • Isabel Huggan, who grew up in Elmira, Ontario and lived for a time in Ottawa, now has her home in the south of France. She made her name with this first collection of stories that still snap my head around with their own particular cockiness. There’s such a sense of letting the traces go, of throwing caution to the winds and getting at the real truths of family and small town life. I read it to remind myself to be funny and brave, and, above all, to believe in what I’m writing.

Enchantment and Sorrow, The Autobiography of Gabrielle Roy, trans. Patricia Claxton, 1987, Lester & Orpen Dennys

  • Another book I love. No one writes more directly and effectively from the heart than Gabrielle Roy. I reread her autobiography for the details of her childhood and for her extreme attachment to her mother from whom she would have to extricate herself in order to become the writer she became. The quality of her emotions, the laying bare of relationships, the hard-won escape to France – it is all gripping and wonderful. The price she paid for her independence, and the price her mother paid, breaks my heart.
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On September 6, I wheeled my bicycle past the bed of zinnias at the front of the house and rode downtown to the National Art Gallery. On the second floor I went looking for Van Gogh. There are two small paintings – zinnias and geraniums in a green bowl, and zinnias and geraniums in a vase. 1886. His zinnia year. I look at these paintings every time I come. On the adjoining wall is a painting of irises. 1889. No vase; they grow straight out of the ground of the mental asylum where he was living. His iris year, when he was in more distress than ever.

My father was very ill on September 6. He was much on my mind as I looked at the flowers, not least because he loved to garden. Then passing through the long gallery of early European art, I saw my father in the flesh and stopped. It was a painting of Job, 1631, oil on canvas by Jan Lievens. There he was, an old and depleted man in a grey loincloth, with thin arms, sunken chest, white beard, bare purply feet, supplicating hands and eyes. I sat down on the bench and stared, took out my distance glasses and looked some more. I realized that I would always be able to visit my father in the final days of his life by coming to this painting.

Over the next days, watching him die, his head back, fingers fluttering at his beard, those unseeing eyes trained on the ceiling, I was watching a figure straight out of an old master’s painting. They studied the old and dying with a powerful scrutiny. Without my knowing it, they had prepared me for everything.

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