Y.S. Lee's Blog, page 9

February 26, 2014

Hello, friends. I’ve recently discovered something that I think I love: swimming.

Until a few months ago, I would never have gone swimming for pleasure. It was something I did only when strictly necessary, like during my children’s swimming lessons. I told myself that I disliked chlorine, that I didn’t want to get swimmer’s ear, that public swimming pools festered with germs, that I preferred hiking and yoga. But the truth is that I was a poor swimmer. Why would I voluntarily do something I was bad at?

As a child, I was afraid of the water. My mother taught me one stroke (breaststroke) well enough to ensure that I wouldn’t drown, then let it go. And for decades, I stayed out of the pool. But a few months ago, I decided to take some lessons. I had some goals: to learn front crawl, to clean up my breaststroke, and to learn the eggbeater kick in order to tread water without using my arms. I decided it was time to acknowledge being a bad swimmer and – the “no duh” moment – improve at it.

It’s still a work in progress. My breaststroke is a lot more efficient. My front crawl, while far from good, exists in a slow way. And the eggbeater kick continues to elude me. But it’s my attitude that’s been revolutionized. I LOVE my swimming lessons. I love analyzing the strokes and working on small details. I love incremental improvement. I love that while in the pool, an hour can feel like 20 minutes. I love the warm glow of mild muscle fatigue. And I love how well I sleep the night of a good swim.

Swimming is one of my favourite things right now, and I’m so very glad that I decided to challenge myself. And this is the whole point, right? To keep learning. To resist complacency. And to become one of those little old ladies who can swim 50 serene lengths without getting her perm wet.

Okay, maybe not the perm.

What about you, friends? What are you learning at the moment?

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Published on February 26, 2014 03:00 • 56 views

February 19, 2014

Hello, friends. Last week . After Judith Chernaik’s Mab’s Daughters and Janet Todd’s Death and the Maidens, my reading led me to Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation, and I am so glad it did.

I’ll start by confessing that I was never especially enamoured of the Romantic poets. I have limited patience for Wordsworth’s one true subject (himself), and while I was a lot more enthusiastic about the second-generation Romantics (a group that includes Keats, Shelley, and Byron), I wasn’t terribly interested in the personal details of their dramatic and scandalous lives. (Why? What was wrong with me, as a student?) Anyway, Daisy Hay changed all that last week.

Hay’s argument is this: although Romantic poets idealized the poet as a solitary genius, the best work of the poets Shelley, Byron, and Keats grew out of a lively intellectual dialogue within a community of artists. Hay reads their poetry against their lives, revealing friendships, conversations, fallings-out, love affairs, and acts of both courage and cowardice. And I completely buy her argument. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I lapped up this book. When I began it, I was primarily looking for more scraps of detail about Fanny (they are few; Hay relies on Todd’s biography), but instead found myself enthralled by the complexity and sheer vivid energy within this group of extraordinarily talented and clever people.


Journalist and poet Leigh Hunt was one of the anchors of this group for a long time. I had no idea that Leigh Hunt was mixed race! He had West Indian blood on his father’s side of the family and endured racist sneers about his skin colour and features. His persistent political radicalism was incredibly brave at a time when publishers were commonly threatened with imprisonment for criticizing the government (and Hunt did serve time, apparently for calling the Prince Regent “fat”). In Bleak House, Dickens cruelly caricatured Hunt as “Harold Skimpole”, a pretentious journalist who simply must live in luxury while his family starves. It’s good to see that portrait balanced.

I didn’t realize that Shelley’s critical reputation (as a poet) came about largely after his death. I think I conflated his privileged background with Byron’s and assumed that they’d both been early nineteeth-century rock stars. But no: Shelley was largely mocked and unread in his lifetime, and it was only long after his death that Mary Shelley could bring out an official edition of his poetical works.

I have a new appreciation for Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister and the girl who joined Shelley and Mary on their “elopement”. I had previously dismissed her as a Jane Austenesque demi-villain: a self-dramatizing second-fiddle with poor impulse control. But Hay has a lot of time and respect for Claire, and I find it persuasive. Claire was in (unrequited) love with Shelley and a loving mother to Allegra, her illegitimate daughter by Byron. She survived both Shelley’s and Allegra’s deaths with dignity and had the fortitude to start life over as a governess in Russia.

I had never before heard a single word about the botanist Elizabeth (Bess) Kent, Leigh Hunt’s sister-in-law and intellectual companion. Her first book was Flora Domestica, a delightful-sounding volume about container gardening enriched by quotations from the poetry of her brilliant friends. Hay describes it as far more than a poetic primer on potted plants; instead, it proclaims “a message of democratic luxury” by claiming that “one did not need to be rich enough to travel to experience the pleasures of nature, since nature could be domesticated in a portable garden”.

One question that occurs to me is the matter of radicalism and youth. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were so painfully young when they eloped, and certainly that youthful idealism informed their writing and their actions. Because so many in the group died fairly young, it would be interesting to trace how their radical politics shifted over time. It’s a commonplace to say that people become more conservative as they age, but that seems borne out in the lives examined here.

But this is me wandering away. Overall, Hay is a fine biographer, striking just the right balance of sympathy and firm judgement. And she’s opened my eyes to the marvels of a group of poets I too-quickly skimmed over as an undergraduate. I was blind, but now I see.

I shall read on.

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Published on February 19, 2014 03:00 • 52 views

February 12, 2014

Hello, friends. Recently, I mentioned reading and loving Claire Tomalin’s biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. I’ve now become completely obsessed with the question of Mary Wollstonecraft’s elder daughter, Fanny. Fanny was born in 1794 in revolutionary Paris, the result of a short, passionate affair between Wollstonecraft and a handsome, fickle, frequently dishonest American named Gilbert Imlay. Imlay promptly tired of Wollstonecraft, moved to London, and set up house with an actress; he never displayed further interest in either Wollstonecraft or their infant daughter.

Wollstonecraft returned to London as well, with her toddler, and married the philosopher William Godwin in 1797. Shortly after, she died from complications of childbirth. (The new baby, Godwin’s biological daughter, grew up to be Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.) Godwin raised both girls and then some: he soon remarried and formed a blended family of five children, none of whom shared a pair of biological parents. Fanny and Mary grew up knowing that they were half-sisters and the daughters of the scandalous genius Mary Wollstonecraft.

The Godwin household was intellectually demanding, emotionally remote, and paralyzed by debt. The second Mrs. Godwin sounds like a deeply unpleasant character who, in fairy-tale fashion, resented and oppressed her stepdaughters. Mary asserted herself by eloping with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and writing a genre-defining bestseller, Frankenstein. Fanny tried to make peace within her fractured and fractious family and committed suicide in a coaching inn at the age of 22.

I’ve now read two books about “the Shelley circle”, combing them for details about Fanny. Let me tell you a bit about what I’ve found.

This is Mab’s Daughters (UK title) by Judith Chernaik. I couldn’t find a decent image of the North American edition, which is titled Love’s Children, but it’s the same novel. Yes, it’s a novel and it’s a quiet, contoured, persuasive, imaginative recreation of the voices of the four women closest to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: his first wife, Harriet; his second wife, the novelist Mary; his sister-in-law (Mary and Fanny’s stepsister) Claire Clairmont; and Fanny. Chernaik’s gift is balance and restraint. She takes these extraordinary lives filled with scandalous episodes and renders them entirely plausible, anchored by loyalty (between sisters) and love (for learning, for travel, but mainly for Percy’s genius). I admire it hugely.

I just finished Death and the Maidens, by Janet Todd. Fanny is typically a footnote in the stories of other great minds: William Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley. The traditional line goes something like this: “Poor, depressive Fanny, what a pity. Her death is important because of what it tells us about so-and-so…” This biography is Todd’s corrective, an effort to place Fanny’s story at the centre of her own life. Todd argues that Fanny was intelligent, politically conscious, opinionated, and warm-hearted. She tried repeatedly to reconcile her sister Mary with her stepfather Godwin (there was a rift after 16-year-old Mary ran away with Shelley; it ended only after Mary and Shelley were legally married, two and a half years later), and hoped to escape her stepmother by going to live with Mary and Shelley. Fanny never got her wish; never received an invitation even to visit Mary for a few days.

Todd argues that this rejection was the central force that pushed Fanny into suicide. It’s an interesting theory but will always remain so; there is scarce evidence of Fanny’s last days, and the people closest to her remained silent. Even at the time, rather than risk the scandal of a suicide in the family, they refused to claim the body. Fanny was abandoned in death, and buried in an anonymous grave in Swansea (the city where she died). While I enjoyed learning more about Fanny’s life, I found Todd’s clear antipathy towards Shelley rather distracting, and I wish the footnotes were more thorough. What dominates overall, however, is Todd’s clear affection for Fanny, and her desire to do Fanny justice.

My third book is Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics. I’m only partway through and will wait until next week to talk about it, but I’m enjoying it immensely.

At this point, I’d like to explain the title of my post. At birth, Fanny’s name was officially recorded as “Françoise Imlay” (Wollstonecraft and Imlay were still a couple, just about, and they were living in Paris). After Wollstonecraft’s death from complications of childbirth, Godwin chose to raise Fanny as his daughter and she became known as Frances Godwin. Despite carrying the names of these two men, however, Fanny was technically illegitimate and never legally adopted. Her name should always have been Fanny Wollstonecraft.

I find it both fascinating and moving that readers still can’t agree on her name. Todd reclaims her as Fanny Wollstonecraft; at other times, she’s Fanny Imlay (wikipedia) or Fanny Godwin (with explanations). It’s tricky to find her in an index. And this elusive quality, the fact that we can’t even work out what to call her, is reflected in her life. No diary survives; her letters are partly destroyed; there is no known portrait. And for a very long time nobody found her remotely interesting, except as an adjunct to the lives of others.

Poor Fanny, indeed.

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Published on February 12, 2014 03:00 • 80 views

February 5, 2014

Hello, friends. Two weeks ago, my children and I had the pleasure of discovering Monica Kulling and Dean Griffiths’s utterly charming picture-book, Lumpito and the Painter from Spain. (Disclosure: I am friendly with Monica and an admirer of her many other books.)

The story features a dachshund named Lump (pronounced “loomp”, meaning “rascal” in German) whose owner, David, takes him from Rome to the south of France to meet Pablo Picasso. Picasso nicknames the dog “Lumpito” and artist and dog get along so fabulously that Lump refuses to go home with David. Instead, he remains with Picasso.

Like many of Kulling’s other books, Lumpito and the Painter from Spain is based on a true story. Kulling tells us that Lump later appeared in some of Picasso’s work, notably his Las Meninas, after Velazquez. If you click on the link to wikipedia, you can see one of the Las Meninas paintings (there are 58 in total) with a small, long dog in the foreground. That’s Lump!

Something about the story seemed familiar. I wondered whether I’d actually heard it before, or whether it was simply too good a tale to remain untold in one form or another. And then I got distracted.

It took Nick to put things together. When I was 21, I travelled to France on my own. One of the few things I bothered to lug back with me was a gift for Nick: a copy of photographer David Douglas Duncan’s Viva Picasso.

Neither of us reads Italian and even as a second-hand copy, the book was fabulously expensive (for the 21-year-old me!). But it was so compelling that I couldn’t leave it. Besides, it was the photographs I loved; I still don’t know what the introductory text says.

Flash-forward to 2014. Nick read Lumpito and the Painter from Spain to our children, then pulled out Viva Picasso. And there it was: David Douglas Duncan’s intimate photographs of Picasso in Cannes, dancing with his children, eating lunch, showing off, holding forth, and, yes, playing with a sweet-looking little dachshund. We met Lumpito years ago, and never even knew it. Maybe we should have tried to read the Italian, after all.

I absolutely love these sorts of reflections and convergences. They give me the shivers, in the best possible way, and I’m so thrilled that Monica Kulling and Dean Griffiths triggered one with their beautifully told, vibrantly illustrated picture book. Thank you, Monica, for this window into art history. It’s an absolute delight.

What about you, friends? Have you heard any echoes across the years, recently or otherwise?

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Published on February 05, 2014 03:00 • 66 views

January 29, 2014

Hello, friends. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Rivals in the City will be published in the UK/World in June 2014. The gorgeous cover, designed by Walker Books, is here. And now I have a pub date for the US/Canadian (Candlewick Press) edition of Rivals in the City: February 2015. I am so thrilled to have a concrete date. I know it’s twelve months away, but I hope you’ll find it worth the wait. I hope to have some cover news to share with you soon, as well.

As for today’s main content, Nafiza of the Book Wars interviewed me recently. She wasted no time in asking the big questions: race, geographical identity, masculinity, Canadian identity, and how much of me goes into the character of Mary Quinn. It was a lovely interview for me, and I hope you enjoy it, too.

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Published on January 29, 2014 03:00 • 96 views

January 22, 2014

Hello, friends. It’s been a pretty unhealthy few weeks in my household. Nick is going into his 5th straight week of viral bleurgh (three separate viruses one after the other, we’re pretty sure) for which his lungs are taking a beating, and I strained my back last week before promptly coming down with a cold. Basically, he can’t breathe and I can’t move. We’re like the dangling punchline of a bad joke.

So it was with a powerful need for diversion that I opened David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art.

It was recommended to me by Toronto children’s author Monica Kulling, whose work I love. Monica said it reminded her of the Agency novels and I’m always simultaneously worried and intrigued when someone says that. I mean, Monica meant it in the nicest possible way, but good grief – what if it’s crap?

In this case, however, I needn’t have fretted. Murder as a Fine Art is a wide-ranging, tightly plotted book with an absolutely terrific premise: controversial essayist and notorious opium-addict Thomas de Quincey comes back to London at the age of 69, is drawn into a re-enactment of the most gruesome mass-murders England has ever seen, and solves them in the company of his clever, independent daughter, Emily, and two members of Scotland Yard.

The novel is ferociously well researched, hits a number of great Victorian themes (rational dress, anti-Irish prejudice, the 1854 cholera outbreak, the Opium Wars) and sets out to have a good bit of deliberately cheeky fun, too. Morrell’s de Quincey has a distinct and instantly recognizable conversational voice, both elegant and incisive. And in Morrell’s vision, there’s nothing de Quincey can’t do, given sufficient incentive (and laudanum, which I’ve written about before.) In any fictionalized form, de Quincey would be a genius. But in this thriller, de Quincey - an elderly man in poor health, a drug addict of nearly five decades – can leap from moving carriages, outrun an elite group of soldiers in the fog, defend himself (with only a teaspoon) against an armed and highly trained killer, climb trees while handcuffed, disguise himself to elude professional spies, and mobilize an improvised army of beggars and prostitutes for the sake of “England”. It’s so audacious it makes you laugh, even while you indulge in the fantasy.

Things that might trouble a reader? Lots and lots of graphic violence, which is certainly not to everyone’s taste. Morrell also assumes that you know absolutely nothing about Victorian London and lays it all out for you in a straightforward way. (Sometimes this is jarring: the repeated mention of giving a poor child “a cookie” each week for learning to read the Bible, for example. It’s okay, editors! We’ll figure out that “a biscuit” is both a treat and a bribe.) I didn’t mind it, though.

And while I was treating my own back with heat, Tylenol and arnica gel, it was doubly good fun to read about the miraculous pain-relieving properties of laudanum. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with my trusty hot-water bottle.

How was your week, everyone? What are you reading?

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Published on January 22, 2014 03:00 • 75 views

January 15, 2014

Hello, friends. A couple of days ago, I finished reading Claire Tomalin’s The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Wollstonecraft, painted in 1797 by John Opie

This is Tomalin’s first book, it’s forty years old (originally published in 1974), and it remains the definitive biography of the first feminist. I read the revised edition of 1992, when it was re-issued to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s incendiary A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but the revisions are light. And WOW, is good biography ever addictive. There are so many fine, thoughtful, glowing reviews of The Life and Death of MW and I don’t feel the need to add to them. But I wanted to highlight a few things that particularly stood out for me.

- One of Tomalin’s finest traits as a biographer is her measured, conscientious empathy with her subjects. She doesn’t take sides in a blind fashion, but remains alive to how each person in a situation may have felt. She even manages to be balanced in her treatment of Gilbert Imlay, who usually reads like a music-hall villain.

- Mary Wollstonecraft was a hothead and a completely unreasonable prima donna. It’s what enabled her to write such radical polemic, of course, but it makes for difficult reading. The peace-loving part of me wants to beg her to take a deep breath (or ten) before charging into a situation. Then again, what do I know about genius? Maybe it needs to trample a few victims in its course.

- This is hard to express without sounding gender-essentialist, but Tomalin’s very clear understanding of childbirth and breastfeeding really makes a difference to the elucidation of Wollstonecraft’s state of mind, at times. A biographer who didn’t grasp the medical and psychological complexities involved would be less effective at interpreting certain lines in the letters and in (Wollstonecraft’s husband) William Godwin’s diary.

- There is no getting over the bitter irony of Wollstonecraft’s dying from complications of childbirth (retained placenta, septicemia). Her death was excruciating and long-drawn-out. In a different time and place, it could have been averted entirely, either through effective birth control or better medical hygiene and technology.

- Wollstonecraft’s husband, friends, and fellow intellectuals sold short her intellectual legacy. I don’t think I realized how completely alone she stood, in her intellectual position, or just how unready the world was for her arguments. Even the other radical thinkers of her day seemed to think she’d gone too far, and then there were the so-called friends (notably Amelia Opie) who turned around and attacked her once she was no longer alive to defend herself. Wollstonecraft remained as isolated after death as she frequently was in life.

- Wollstonecraft was an unfavoured daughter, a governess, a mediocre schoolteacher, and a hack journalist; an emotional tyrant who lived more frequently in conflict than in peace. She was also a self-taught intellectual, an independent woman who earned her own living, an effective negotiator, a courageous and sturdy traveller, a loving mother, and a genius who knew nothing of compromise. We are lucky to have Tomalin’s portrait of her.

And now that I’ve read about Wollstonecraft’s life, I’m going to re-read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. What are you reading right now?

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Published on January 15, 2014 03:00 • 78 views

January 8, 2014

Hello, friends. Here’s what my Christmas and New Year’s looked like:

I finished the substantive revisions for Rivals in the City! It’s 70,000 words. 21 chapters. I cut one significant character. Re-introduced another. Re-worked the plot. I think I rewrote about half the book, over the past couple of months.

And now, I am very tired. I’ll catch you all next week, okay?

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Published on January 08, 2014 03:00 • 43 views

January 1, 2014

Hello, friends, and happy new year!

This is the sugar maple in my garden, still coated in ice from the recent ice storm. I haven’t spent much time looking ahead to the new year, just yet; instead, I find myself unwilling to let go of the extraordinary beauty that’s surrounded us for the past couple of weeks.

Here’s a picture of our local bit of waterfront path:

Another thing I’m unwilling to let go is my happiest food discovery of the holiday season: sugar plums. All I knew about sugar plums until recently was that line from Clement C. Moore’s “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, and the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Then I got a recipe for sugar plums from my son’s former preschool teacher, Bonnie. They are absolutely lovely (Bonnie is, too). Sugar plums are also absurdly quick to make (no baking) and inherently dairy- and gluten-free, if that’s important to you.

So on the first day of 2014, let’s think about sugar plums, shall we? I hope your year ahead is as rich, flavourful, and surprising as these sugar plums.

Sugar Plums

2 cups whole almonds, toasted

1⁄4 cup honey

2 tsp. grated orange zest

1 1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1⁄2 tsp. ground allspice

1⁄2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

1 cup finely chopped dried apricots

1 cup finely chopped pitted dates

1 cup confectioners’ sugar or shredded coconut

Finely chop the almonds. Combine honey, orange zest, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg in a medium mixing bowl. Add almonds, apricots, and dates and mix well. (I did this all in the food processor. Also, I used hazelnuts because I had some lying around and hazelnuts seem deeply festive, to me.)

Pinch off rounded teaspoon-size pieces of the mixture and roll into balls. Roll balls in sugar, then refrigerate in single layers between sheets of waxed paper in airtight containers for up to 1 month. Their flavor improves after ripening for several days. (I skipped the coating because I dislike the taste of icing sugar and didn’t have superfine coconut. They were definitely sweet enough on their own.)

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Published on January 01, 2014 03:00 • 76 views

December 25, 2013

Hello, friends. We made it! The Ice Storm of 2013 is over and it wasn’t nearly as severe or debilitating as some of us expected. In my neighbourhood, we lost power four times over three days, but never for more than a few hours. Really, it was just enough to give us a taste of pre-electric life before we had to do anything hardcore like melt snow for bath water.

A few observations:

- I am so very grateful to live in a place with strong infrastructure. An ice-laden branch from a neighbour’s tree fell on a power line at 3am, and there was a team out there with a bucket truck just five hours later, fixing everything. On a Sunday morning. The next time I see some Utilities Kingston workers in a coffee shop, I’m going to buy them all drinks.

- I am also deeply grateful for excellent neighbours. An hour after the power went out, we had a call from a neighbour offering us shelter, food, and company. Later that evening, a pair of friends went door-to-door in our area, checking to make sure that everyone was okay and asking if there were any frail or elderly people who needed special help.

- Doing without electricity for a couple of hours at a time was an adventure! There were some logistical considerations (“Let’s try to cook tomorrow’s food before we lose power again.” and “Let’s bathe the children now, so if the power goes out we have enough daylight to finish the job.”) and creeping around with flashlights. I had a shower by candlelight!

- You can’t bend a beam of light. After my delightful shower, I was walking down the hall holding my candles, feeling very adequately lit, when I tripped on a fallen sweater. What I learned: when you hold candles above waist height, anything below knee level is lost in utter darkness. (My friend Violette Malan experienced the first ice storm, in 1997, and she learned this same lesson in the kitchen: on that first evening without power, she had a pile of candles and felt ready to make dinner, but she couldn’t see anything in the kitchen drawers. This, she says, is why old kitchens had open presses (shelves) for utensil storage.)

- Candlelight favours small rooms with low, white ceilings. I now understand why rooms in old houses are so often small: unless people were extravagantly wealthy, they could never have lit them adequately.

- Similarly, reading after dark was an activity for the affluent. Wax candles and books were both very expensive, and you need several candles to read comfortably.

- Much as I love (and am obsessed with) the Victorian era, I am firmly a creature of the present. I love hot water on demand, bright lights, and refrigerators. However, this tiny sample of pre-electric life has made me curious. At some point, I’d like to try an extended unplugged experience. Have any of you tried this?

- Finally, is there anything more beautiful than a world enveloped in a thick layer of ice? Here are some shots from our walk this morning.

Dead flowers on a bush in our garden.

Storm clouds over Lake Ontario, and some very cold-looking pigeons on the beach!

Our local waterfront path

How was your week? Did you get hit with heavy weather? Do tell me! And finally, if you’re celebrating it, Merry Christmas! I hope it’s warm and peaceful, wherever you are.

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Published on December 25, 2013 03:00 • 60 views