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April 19, 2021

Tainna, by Norma Dunning

Almost four years ago, I had my mind blown by Norma Dunning’s short story collection Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, a collection of heartfelt, page-bursting, ribald gorgeous stories, and as soon as I started reading her follow-up, Tainna, I knew I was in for something just as great. The first story, “Amak,” about two sisters estranged for many years who come together again, even though one of them—the narrator—knows she’s walking into a trap. The way that decades-old traumas continue to be carried, and how they might be understood so differently by two people who experienced it together, and the nuance of that relationship, of that fraught and agonizing love that will always fail to deliver what either party desires from it—oh, Dunning nails it with such acuity. She gets it exactly right, which is what I love about these stories, their straightforwardness, how there is nothing extraneous or elliptical. They’re rich and vivid, and absolutely satisfying, but never trite.

“Kunak” is the story of a homeless man on the streets of Edmonton, Inuk like most of the characters in the collection, whose grandfather has passed on to the spirit world, but watches over him still. In “Eskimo Heaven,” a Priest touches the hand of a deceased member of his congregation and is taken on a journey to learn an appreciation for the culture of the people he lives amongst. A group of women just post middle-age get together on the regular to try to snare a rich man in “Panem et Circenses.” And Annie Muktuk is back in “These Old Bones,” this time from her own point of view, when she leaves the north and her husband after a devastating place and begins to build a new life for herself with assistance from a former foe.

That sounds heavy, doesn’t it? And it is, but the story is just as rich with colour and life as it is devastating. Nothing is ever just one thing in these stories, or stays still long enough to be. These are stories of how trauma is born and turned into stories, which is how these characters (and anybody) comes to understand their experiences. These are stories about character, about how character is formed by resilience and grit, and how survival comes from hands that reach out in the darkness, unseen, and how the people those hands are saving are so often unseen themselves, but Dunning makes them known in her stories, in startling, brilliant clarity.

April 19, 2021

Accidentally at the Beach

If you’re a fan of my blog, you’ve probably heard me talk about accidental cake, which is my own personal theory of serendipity. This past Saturday was another #accidentalcake adventure, the dream trip to the beach we never planned for. Friday night I was so devastated by the news, I baked @smittenkitchen’s hummingbird cake (the icing is not necessary) to feel better and also because I was intrigued by the pineapple banana combo. The next afternoon we had the carshare booked for a journey somewhere, and because I had this freshly baked loaf, I suggested we wrap up half and deliver it to our friends’ new house in the east end—they are moving in today. We were planning to go over to the Brickworks after, but Stuart suggested that since we were almost at the beach, how about we go to the beach. And so we did, because the cake brought us, and the beach was so beautiful and clean and while we there the sun came out and the sky turned blue, and our kids jumped on the rocks and I had my back to them so I wouldn’t yell, “Be careful,” and the ice cream store was open, and there was so much space, and sky, and it was not that cold, and the sun was glorious, and a swan came by, and we were all so very happy, and it seemed distinctly possible that our spirits will weather this storm and we’ll all come out the other side. And without that cake, none of this would have happened.

April 15, 2021

Accidentally Engaged, by Farah Heron

I could not have loved Farah Heron’s sophomore novel Accidentally Engaged any more—I was already besotted by the end of the first paragraph when we first encounter Reena’s sourdough starter, whose name is Brian (obviously). It’s a very pandemicky novel actually, not in content in the slightest, but instead it’s wonderfully cozy, video content is important, and there is so much fresh baked bread. Which is what brings Reena and Nadim together in the first place, the aroma drifting from her apartment across the hall to where he’s just moved in. The attraction between them is instantaneous, but Reena can’t act on it—it turns out her overbearing parents have Nadim in mind as a potential husband for her, and she refuses to let them play this role in her life. And so she and Nadim become friends instead, as well as neighbours. They’re compatible, share the same East African background, and he sure loves her bread. And so when an opportunity comes along for Reena to make her cooking show dreams come true as part of a couples contest, she agrees to let Nadim pretend to be her fiance—but the whole thing is just an act. Or is it?

I loved this novel. Heron’s debut, The Chai Factor, was great, but this follow-up is even better, polished and so deftly plotted. (We also get to meet up with Amira and Duncan again in this book, as Reena is Amira’s best friend.) The humour is spot-on and so very fresh, and the complicated dynamic between Reena and Nadim is drawn out just the right amount, enough to be intriguing, not so much as to be preposterous. There’s a lot of cross-cultural romance going on in fiction right now, with books like The Chai Factor and Jane Igharo’s Ties That Tether, and so it was interesting for me to read a book where both characters come from the same background and even then the course of true love does not run smooth.

Heron challenges conventional notions of Muslim women—they have sex!—and Muslim families once again this second novel, and she writes beautifully about Reena’s pride in her identity as an Indian woman: “Reena loved being Indian. Loved the food, the glittery clothes, and today, she even loved the deep-seated traditions. Like sari shopping with aunties.”

This novel is such a delight.

April 14, 2021

Gleanings

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April 13, 2021

Why I don’t call authors by their first names

The book in my hands in this photo is LUCKY, the latest novel by Marissa Stapley, who I’m fortunate to call my friend—but when I write about her book, I’m going to refer to her as “Stapley.” And NOT because we’re the kind of friends who refer to each by our last names. No, I’m going to write about her as Stapley when I’m talking about her book, because it’s the feminist thing to do, and because women authors are the only ones any of us ever seem to be on a first name basis with. Think of the male authors you love to read, whose work seems to know your soul—it’s not simply a question of intimacy. Because sure, you might love Stephen King or John Irving, but have you ever come across a review in which either was referred to as “John” or “Steve”?

But with the women, we’re all “Marian,” “Farah,” “Jennifer” “Marissa,” and “Brit.” We’re excited to read these authors because it feels like we know them, and we’ve read their work so closely that it’s almost as though we do. Further, social media makes it possible for some of them to know us back, so the ties are real…but actually knowing an author only drives home to me the importance of using their surnames in book reviews. It’s a question of respect, for the author’s work, and for women’s work in general, which is so often devalued in comparison to the works by Johns and Steves. Nobody calls Shakespeare “William.” It’s a political act to declare a woman worthy of her surname, women’s surnames having been considered disposable through much of history anyway, which means that in historical record women tend to disappear.

As @kelly.diels writes, “We are the culture makers.” The authors, the bloggers, and the bookstragrammers—all of us. And with the power to make culture comes the power to change it, and I choose to acknowledge that power, to use it to help build the kind of world where women’s work is considered as serious and consequential as that of their male peers. Where a woman doesn’t have to be your BFF to get on your radar, and even if she is your friend, you are going to give her authorship the reverence such a thing deserves.

April 12, 2021

Eyes On the Prize

I was scrolling Instagram yesterday when I came across a sponsored post from The Washington Post that was only out to push my buttons, and I hate being manipulated, so I resisted for at least seven seconds, imagining that I wasn’t going to click on this piece: Intelligence forecast sees a post-coronavirus world upended by climate change and splintering societies. But, of course I was going to click, not because I was excited about or interested in the topic, but because such a headline makes me unreasonable anxious, and then I just have to click in order to clarify that it can’t be as bad as all that (which is the whole story of my entire relationship with Twitter, you might recall), and it pretty much was that bad, but of course they’re only forecasts anyway. And I’m distrustful of forecasts. My shameful secret is that I wish fewer people were into tarot, because it’s not sensible, and I’m just really wary of prophecies in general, because they close us off from possibilities, undermining the only thing that’s really clear, which is: nobody knows what’s going to happen next.

“…whoever makes up the story makes up the world.” From Ali Smith’s Autumn, and I think about this all the time. I think it might be the truest thing I know, and certainly it’s been true with the narrative of Covid, as we move from one wave to another with such a sense of inevitability, but it really wasn’t. We’re under strong restrictions here in Ontario right now because of this failure, and I keep thinking about how different things would be if the messaging wasn’t, “Stay home!” but instead, “Get outside!” If people hadn’t been laying bets on a second wave before the first one was over, and instead we’d been shown how to build on our success in bringing down virus levels in the spring, if we’d been empowered to use our behaviour to keep making a difference. If the people who were telling the story (and creating the headlines) had been more cognizant of the weight of their responsibility, the power that they had to shape how the story goes.

I continue to think a lot about this, about my own insistence on there being possibilities in addition to DOOM. I’ve written this before, but there is a correlation between being hopeful and being brave enough to possibly wrong. It takes courage to acknowledge the many different ways the story can go, and insisting on the certainty of worst-case outcomes can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I know the forecasters in the Washington Post article weren’t making their predictions based on tarot cards, and I know that tarot too can be an empowering kind of storytelling at their heart, but regardless, I keep thinking about what we told our kids when they were learning to ride their bikes. Telling them, “Keep looking at where you want to go,” which is a difficult thing to intuit, because you’re thinking about your feet on the pedals, and the wheels, and the path right in front of you, with the whole world whizzing by, but if you aren’t looking out at where you’re going, you’re never going to get there. Keep your eyes on the prize—and even you don’t arrive, you’ll have come to a different, better place than you would have if you’d never bothered to try at all.

April 7, 2021

The Relatives, by Camilla Gibb

I loved Camilla Gibb’s new novel, The Relatives, a slim book that reads up fast, but is also not remotely slight. It’s a single volume comprising stories of three different people who don’t know each other—Lila, an alcoholic social worker yearning for a child; Tess, sharing custody of a child after her breakup and disturbed by her ex’s plans regarding their frozen embryos; and then Adam, the American man who’s being held hostage in Somalia. Each of these stories worthy of a novel of its own, and the connections between them are subtle, but important, and the whole arrangement fits together so well, kind of seamlessly, which is a remarkable achievement.

And the seamlessness is the result of the plot and the pacing here, which never stops, and makes this easily a novel you could read in a day. Everything has gone wrong for Lila, who tells her story in first person. She has put her job on the line, overstepping bounds as she brings a young girl into her care who’d been found wandering in Toronto’s High Park and does not speak a word. Lila herself is adopted, never knew the woman who gave her to her, and her own mother has just died, reawakening old wounds but also suggesting new possibilities, and it’s clear that none of this is going to end well, as she tries to fill the hole in her world with the girl.

Adam, in third person, is just as cut off from meaningful ties, even before he’s taken hostage. He’s working for the State Department in Somalia at a refugee camp, undercover, as he investigates rumours of infiltration by militant recruiters…but maybe they’re on to him, and now he’s stuck in a hole, his body brutalized, and the worst of the torture is still before him.

Things are a little less dire for Tess (also first person), an academic who studies isolated islands and other isolated communities, though her personal life is in shambles, something of an island herself. Her ex’s one last chance at motherhood would be by implanting one of Tess’s embryos, but this is a lot of ask of anyone, and especially fraught for someone as prickly as Tess—is it even possible to navigate this situation with any grace?

These stories snowball, compelled by a sense of inevitability, though the specifics still aren’t clear, and this is the seamlessness I’d talking about, how one thing leads to another, and how our lives rub up against those of others, even against our will, and what it is to be related, to have a family, how we write our own stories onto those that belong to other people. Rich and absorbing,The Relatives is about the impossibility of islands, because connection is what humans do, for better or for worse, by accident and on purpose.

March 31, 2021

What Now?

“What now?” asked my friend Avery Swartz in response to the blog post I wrote yesterday, which I also posted on Instagram to much response. And at first, my answer to her question was, “Right??” Figuring she meant it rhetorically. “What, now?” Because it does truly boggle the mind, our government’s response to the current moment. The refusal to listen to experts, to do what needs to be done, to deviate from a plan that appears to be no plan.

But it was a genuine question: what does it mean when I say that yesterday I hit my limit, that “I’m done”? What does that mean for what I’m going to do today?

Me? I’m going to keep going. After falling off the patience train yesterday, I’m going to get back on it. I’m going to keep taking measures to protect me, my family and my community. We will continue to wear masks, even outdoors. We will mostly continue to associate with no one outside our household. We will definitely not be seeing anybody indoors, which has been the case for us for a year now. We will be doing everything within our power to limit the spread of the virus.

But I am going to have a masked outdoor gathering with my parents on Sunday. I cancelled plans for this at Thanksgiving, and I regret it now. With warmer weather returning, we have the opportunity for these small outdoor gatherings, which are low-risk, and I’m going to have this one and appreciate it, particularly because it will likely be some time before we have another.

What else am I going to do? I am going to continue to show my support for my kids’ teachers. I am going to use my voice in favour of serious lockdown measures in this province to bring the spread of this virus under control. I am gong to order takeout and support other local businesses.

I am going to start taking action to do what I can to make a positive difference in the 2022 Provincial election and help us get the kind of leadership we deserve.

I’m also going to chill out. Rage is not the answer, except to the question of how to destroy me. Chilling out has been my strategy since September or so, and it’s served me well, and certainly hasn’t made the broader situation any more awful. Disengaging from Twitter and a lot of online chatter is so important for me. There is so much noise going on there, in particular in the sphere of provincial politics, and so much of what everybody is in a flap about doesn’t actually really matter, or filter up to the real world. I found this a lot when organizing events in support of public education pre-COVID, that most normal offline people people didn’t care about so much of what I was enraged about all the time…and sometimes you have to wonder in a situation like that which of us is the person who’s actually missing the point.

I am organizing a community clean up. I am staying engaged with the world through select news sources. I am doing whatever I can to make life a little bit less terrible for the people I interact with who don’t have my privilege of being able to work from home. I am taking responsibility for the things I have control over and not losing my shit about anything that’s outside that purview.

I will keep going. And we ARE going to get there. It was just never going to be an easy road, especially because of our spectacularly terrible leadership. We all deserve better. And I hope we can work together to ensure we get it.

March 30, 2021

Don’t Make Plans

Is there any way that I can possibly convey just how exasperating it is for Doug Ford, 13 months into this pandemic, to be telling me not to make plans?

Doug Ford, whose entire approach to handling the pandemic has been “no plans,” whose approach to school re-openings was LITERALLY “Let’s give this a shot, at least…and pray to god that everyone’s safe.” Doug Ford, who campaigned for the job of premier with a platform of “no plan,” whose Ministry actually thought it was totally okay for teacher-librarians to be finding out on Labour Day that the next day they’d be teaching kindergarten. Whose whole plan for the second wave was to do nothing until the pandemic was once again out of control, and whose plan for averting a third wave was to open up the province again while infectious variants are rising. Whose vaccine roll-out plans have been definitively NOT GREAT?

Who ever could have seen this third wave coming, not to mention the second one?

Um, EVERYONE.

Right now, teacher’s unions are advising the province to move schools to virtual after Easter weekend, and then keep our delayed Spring Break, which I think sounds like a fine plan, but because this is a government that prides itself on not listening to unions or people who know things, perhaps they’re probably not going to take that advice, and this is the kind of instability that’s been a hallmark of this group of ding-dongs since they were elected.

And maybe the Premier doesn’t make plans, but I do. Like everyone, I had plans for 2020, plans that got cancelled one after the other, and I’ve been mainly uncomplaining as I cancelled those plans, because some things can’t be planned for and you can’t control what happens (when you’re not the government), but instead how you react to it. So I’ve stiffened my upper lip, and gone without seeing friends and family, and my children have been brave as they’ve made giant sacrifices in their own lives, and I’ve tried to live up to their example, and so it was with Easter last year, and I cancelled our plans for an outdoor Thanksgiving, and Halloween, and Christmas was my mom coming over in the afternoon with us all wearing masks and the windows open, which was freezing, and I haven’t seen her since then. We had picnics in the park six feet away from friends in the summer, but haven’t socialized with people outside our household since our kids returned to school, and I’m still not complaining, because you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and also I continue to be so grateful that we’ve all been healthy.

But today I hit my limit. I am finished with having all my plans cast aside because of this government’s complete lack of a plan, and over and over again. This is not like last spring when nobody knew what was going to happen, or what actions would be necessary to control the spread of the virus, when all of us (including the experts) were still in the dark. For months, medical experts have been advising the government to implement paid sick leave to slow the spread in workplaces. Others have been advising widespread testing and tracing, particularly in schools, and this still hasn’t happened. There are all kinds of plans that could have been put in place to avert this latest wave of Covid, and the government has heeded none of it.

And now the Premier has the nerve to tell me not to make plans for Easter? When Easter is literally FIVE FUCKING DAYS AWAY? With absolutely no respect, Doug Ford (because it’s been a very long year), you’ve got no business advising anybody about plans, or messing with mine, because it’s your absolutely failure to plan that’s resulted in our current disaster.

Doug Ford telling me not to make plans for Easter is so absolutely patronizing, disrespectful, and insulting.

Doug Ford telling me not to make plans is like the pot calling the kettle a failure of leadership. It’s like the doctor who missed the diagnosis complaining about the funeral. It’s like the guy who pisses on your boots, and tells you that it’s raining, and then hands you a ticket for standing in a puddle.

March 30, 2021

Gleanings

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