If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine, it’s lethal.– Paul Coelho
The coast of Labrador is a gorgeous thing to behold from the sky.
If you’re flying low enough, you witness the exact moment the vastness of the ocean encounters the land mass known as North America. At first, small outcroppings of craggy land struggle to contain a multitude of inland lakes too numerous to count. Then slowly, slowly, the land gains a superior foothold visible between fluffy little plops of cloud.
Air Canada’s 3D map spins, showing Davis Inlet and Nain to the north, Rigolet and Hopedale to the south, as we zoom 560 miles/hr towards the Churchill Falls of hydro-electric fame, and then on, 1096 miles later, to Toronto.
The airplane’s windows are mostly shut as people watch movies or doze. My earphones croon classic jazz. It feels intimate and calm – two words I seldom associate with airline travel – and I’m grateful for it.
It’s July, and I’m headed home again for a month, during a summer of unusually busy travel, as pandemic-cancelled trips reschedule, and credits threaten to expire.
I’ve taken a transatlantic crossing between New York and Southampton, England, on the Queen Mary 2, decades after my parents and three older sisters emigrated to Canada on another ocean liner, the Empress of Canada. I’ve gone to Dublin for the Irish launch of Pull Focus, bumped the previous October due to lockdown, and visited cousins in Cork.
I’ve also hung out for ten days on the Greek island of Lesvos, swimming in the warm Aegean sea and eating tzatziki and stuffed zucchini flowers and gavros (fried anchovies) at beachside tavernas with friends.
August will bring a return to Edinburgh, then onwards to Italy, riding the rails to London, the Eurostar to Paris, and the sleek, beautiful electric Italian trains to Turin, Florence and Rome, interspersed with time spent in Tuscany.
But for now, I’m back home.
No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until [she] comes home and rests [her] head on [her] old, familiar pillow.– Lin Yutang
How good it felt to decompress after the fear of the past three years. To be a traveller once again out in the world, anonymously walking streets not my own, discovering little bookshops and local writers for the first time, engaging in casual conversations with strangers on the patio of an outdoor restaurant.
Travel opens the camera lens of our mind, providing a wider angle on our ideas and experiences. It jettisons the egoistic belief there is one valid opinion, one set of norms or behaviours above all others. It reminds us we are but a speck in the historical sweep of mankind, and infinitesimally even less so in evolutionary terms.
Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.– Gustave Flaubert
London and Lesvos, Dublin and Cork. Readers of this newsletter won’t be surprised at my destinations since I’ve written about them previously. I’m a creature of habit in travel, returning like a homing pigeon time and again to places that capture my soul.
The downside: so many places in the world yet undiscovered. The upside: a more serious engagement that can only come through repeat visits. Corners turned and places recognized; friendships made and deepened; a letting go of site-seeing in favour of slowing sinking in.
In Molyvos, Lesvos, the donkeys have sadly disappeared from the village in my absence – the fish are now delivered by moped. Gone, too, is The Captain’s Table, a popular harbour restaurant, after twenty-eight years in business.
Covid was so widespread in the village, the pharmacies ran out of test kits. But the managed risk of living went on, as did the tug-of-war between Turkey and Greece about contested claims to land and sea, and whose responsibility it was to care for the overcrowded, dangerous migrant ships being sent out from Istanbul or Mersin.
Meanwhile, the Dublin streets rocked. As busy as I’d ever seen the city, hordes of young people from across the world in situ (150,000 English language students come to Ireland each year), restaurants and bars bursting at the seams. Ireland had experienced a record-long lockdown, more similar to Canada than many other countries, and suddenly it was Shrovetide before Lent – a time to let loose and party.
In upcoming newsletters, I’ll write more in-depth about the Queen Mary 2 experience and the role Cunard has played in North American immigration; about Italy and art tours; riding the rails, and more.
But for now, I’m reflecting on all I’ve learned this summer. It’s Canadian Thanksgiving. Like harvest festivals the world over, today celebrates the end of the growing season and the beginning of the feast.
As with all rituals, Thanksgiving marks a passage of time. It offers up an opportunity to gather at home with friends and family – if we are lucky enough to have them. We give thanks for all we have and the people in our lives. Or we notice their absence more keenly.
Today, I’m thinking about my tiny place in this wide world. About love and empathy, judgement and censure. I’m reading about the remarkable courage of Iranian women, the Russian bombings in Ukraine, and the devastating fallout from the floods in Pakistan.
I’m thinking, too, about where we find ‘home.’ In the physical structures where we live, if we are fortunate enough to be housed. In our families and loved ones. The communities we’re born into or choose. The natural world that, to paraphrase poet Mary Oliver, offers itself up to our imagination. In the totality of our memories.
I live in Toronto and in the countryside outside it. I also go ‘home’ to Mallow, Co Cork, where my father was from and where he’s buried. I feel a sense of home, now, too, in Scotland, the birthplace of my mother and grandparents and all the generations that came before, after returning yearly there for almost two decades.
Ultimately, I believe home is found in comfort and familiarity. Today, I celebrate all my ancestors who came before, the generations that will come after, and most importantly, the loved ones who walk beside me in this life. Thank you ever so much.🙂
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.– TS Elliot
What a great time I had in Dublin for my Irish book launch. The folks at Hodges Figgis, the 254-old bookshop, gave me a cheery welcome and erected displays of my novel in the front window, on the ground floor, and then upstairs, where the event took place. So generous and spirited.
It was great craic to be interviewed by Grainne Humphreys, the Executive Director of the Dublin Film Festival, and to receive from her a great compliment on my novel. She said she’d be trying to explain to her mother for twenty years what she did for a living, and now she could hand her Pull Focus; that’s how true to life it read.
News & Gossips
I’m very proud of my partner, Michael Decter, for publishing his first novel (although ninth book) Shadow Life with Cormorant Books. It’s already getting great reviews:
A compelling novel of a man, shaken by injustice, searching for his family history. Great for fans of John Strelecky’s The Cafe on the Edge of the World, Andreas Hartinger’s The Brave Child.– Publishers Weekly
BookToK has swept publishing the past couple years, driving up sales so dramatically (often for backlist titles) that first Barnes & Noble and now Indigo have dedicated sales tables to books reviewed on TikTok.
Rolling Stone Magazine reports this week on Penguin Random House’s attempts to co-opt the independence of creators on TikTok. Apparently, already selling more books than any other publisher in the world is not enough.
PRH recently announced a ‘collaboration’ with TikTok allowing users to link to books directly in the app, compiling information, including videos about the book, into one location. But only their books, of course.
Inevitably, this will result in reduced opportunity for all but A-list writers, including those published by independent presses – which is 85% of Canadian titles, according to ShuSh, the excellent industry newsletter by Ken Whyte.
As a writer, one is inundated by Instagram or Twitter book bloggers offering book reviews for a fee. But BookTok creators have focused on being critics, not promoters, eschewing sponsored posts. It provides them fewer options for making money but more credibility. Will that change?
“Initially, I thought this new [feature] could have some utility,” TikTok creator Haley Thomas says. “But then it felt scummy, like, not only is this giant trying to gobble up every other publisher, but now they want BookTok?”– Rolling Stone Magazine
When I was ten, Robin, a second cousin of my mother’s from Dunoon, landed unannounced on our doorstep. None of us, including my mother, had ever met him. He had a suitcase with him.
Robin lounged around our already cramped house for months, eating everything, contributing nothing. He was also a slob – a definite strike against you, in a house run by Scottish women.
My mother despaired of him ever leaving. But Robin was family, and the memory of my mother’s indomitable Aunt Lizzy (Robin’s grandmother), terrified my mother even though she hadn’t seen her in forty years.
The saving grace in the end? Scientology. Because one day, Robin detoured off Yonge Street into the Scientology headquarters and came out with Dianetics in his hand. And suddenly, the word of Ron L Hubbard was everywhere in the house.
Family might be one thing, but a cult follower around impressionable children was quite another, thank you very much. My mother steeled herself for unpleasantness as she prepared to evict Robin, but Robin didn’t require an audit to figure out which way the winds were blowing. Toute de suite, he found himself a fellow seeker and moved in with her.
I don’t know whatever happened to Robin, but I’ve been obsessed with cults ever since. My sister Debbie and I were convinced that Charles Manson was headed straight to Brampton should he get parolled. I’ve read or seen everything about The Moonies, Children of God, Nxivm, and of course, Scientology.
So, I watched actor Danny Masteron’s pre-trial hearing last week on three rape charges with interest. The trial judge may say that Scientology itself is not on trial, but it’s hard to see how the organization’s command and control practices won’t be put under the microscope.
Jury selections started today in Harvey Weinstein’s LA sex crimes trial. (Weinstein was convicted of criminal sexual acts and rape in 2020 in New York; he’s currently serving a 23-year sentence, but is appealing that conviction.) The ‘Jane Doe’ in the West Coast case was just revealed as Jennifer Siebel Newsom, wife of California governor Gavin Newsom and formerly a documentary maker and actor.
And, in other sex trial news, Kevin Spacey’s trial also opened today, while Paul Haggis had his pre-trial motions in the Italy rape case struck down last Friday, and is set to go to trial October 17th.
Bye for now. Thank you for joining me for this eighteenth issue of Letterbox. Apologies for the gap since the last newsletter, and many thanks to all who wrote to say they missed Letterbox.