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February 13, 2019

Mini Reviews: Three Books on Family

The Last Romantics, by Tara Conklin: The summary on the jacket flap of Tara Conklin’s new novel The Last Romantics tells you that this is a story that begins in a yellow house, with a funeral, an iron poker…”a free and feral summer in a middle-class Connecticut town.” And while all this is true, it doesn’t begin to tell the reader what this book is about, a book that takes place over a century and actually begins in an auditorium in a dystopian future, a world wracked by climate chaos, where 102-year-old Fiona Skinner is asked to explain the story behind her most famous poem. And I’m amused by the challenge this novel must have created for marketers, who prefer novels to ones that can summed up in a sentence, and this one definitely isn’t one of those. A clue to what’s actually going on here lies in a blurb on the back by Meg Wolitzer, whose two most recent books have been similarly ambitious in their reach, not explicitly about anything either except the story itself, about the characters within and how time changes and complicates their connections. The story is the sweep, and so it is here, although it’s not always completely convincing as it is in Wolitzer’s more masterful work (though I will admit this is a high bar).

There are narrative strands in this novel that don’t go anywhere, and while one could argue that life itself is a bit like that, the reader gets the impression that this novel was once a more larger and more unruly manuscript and much got cut in the taming, and now there are several parts of the novel that don’t know what to do with themselves. There are also a few plot points that hinge on characters doing unfathomable things, which was annoying. But, most fundamentally: this novel was never not interesting, and I found it thoroughly engaging. The shifts between point of view (no small feat with a first-person narrator) was beautiful crafted, and provide moments of real illumination. The Last Romantics is a curious beast, and I can think of worse things for a novel to be.

*

Reproduction, by Ian Williams: This debut novel by award-winning poet Williams is another curious beast, but more deliberately so than with Conklin’s book. Williams brings a poet’s attention to form, always pushing at the novel’s limits, making it hold more, do more, be more—and it mostly absolutely works. Beyond form, this is always a family story like none I’ve ever read before—two people meet in a Toronto hospital room in the late 1970s and their mothers are dying. One is Felicia, a teenage girl from an unnamed Caribbean island, and the other is Edgar, adult son of a wealthy German immigrant family. One thing leads to another, and after a time they end up having a child together, though Edgar leaves the scene, and Felicia ends up raising her son, Armistice, in the basement apartment of a suburban Brampton side-split where Oliver lives, and we find them all next in the 1990s and Oliver’s two children have arrived for the summer from their home with his ex-wife, and one thing leads to another, and another child is born. Which all sounds more straightforward than it really is, because there are tricks with language, details, timelines and lineage. I loved the specificity of the story, it’s strangeness, but its utter plausibility, how it’s not a sensible story, but it makes perfect sense. This is another book that is never not interesting, but it’s also a demanding read—so when I finished Reproduction, I made a point of picking up a novel that was in a different gear. And this is my favourite thing about books, that there’s not just a single kind…

*

Her One Mistake, by Heidi Perks: The opposite of a book that’s unlike any I’ve ever read before is Her One Mistake. a psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator Gone Girlish vibe. Which certainly has been overdone in recent years, and has its pale imitators, but I thought Heidi Perks’ novel was really terrific. This one starts when Charlotte agrees to take her friend Harriet’s young daughter, Alice, to a school fair, but then Alice goes missing, and Charlotte’s negligence is seemingly to blame. But as always, the real story is more complicated, and there are twists and turns to find out what really happened to Alice. My only criticism would be that Harriet’s husband is way too absolutely evil to be a realistic human character, but then a) if I’ve learned anything in recent years it’s that some men’s capacity for abusiveness is beyond my wildest imaginings and b) none of the novel’s twists hang on the possibility of his character being anything than what he is, so there’s nothing cheap happening here. I really loved this book, and its ending was gripping and explosive and had me shouting at the page.

February 12, 2019

Gleanings

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February 11, 2019

On Asking for Things

I think I’ve been audacious precisely twice in my life, and I’ve written about one of those times before: the time I encountered hydro workers on a country road and pulled over to ask if I could have a ride in their bucket. “I can’t think of a reason why not,” was the worker’s incredible reply, and so we had an adventure, just because we’d had the nerve to ask for it. But such nerve, for me, was uncharacteristic, and while I will forever wish I was the kind of person who was ever asking for bucket rides, that day was an anomaly. Instead, I’m pretty religious about following the rules, keeping to the speed limit, staying in my lane, and watching spacing.

(“If we give one out to you, we’ll have to start giving them out to everybody,” I once told a patron when I worked in a library, and he’d asked to borrow a pencil. Libraries, with their decimals and rules, are my natural habitat, and the habits I acquired there have proven awfully hard to break. At my local branch, I still get rankled when I see children eating crackers by the board books, scattering crumbs across the floor.)

The other time I was audacious was completely by accident, or ignorance. When I was seventeen, I spent a week in Edinburgh, where my aunt, uncle and cousins were living for a year, by which I meant that my youthful naivety (and stupidity) was unleashed on the international community. I was a ridiculous human being, and insisted on wearing pyjamas on the plane, WHICH WAS NOT GLAMOUROUS. I also thought the whole point of travel was to try out the McDonalds menu in other cities. In Edinburgh, the commercial streets were lined with signs that said, “To Let,” and every time I saw one, I pointed and shouted, “Toilet!” I had to purchase a second suitcase in a charity shop in order to bring home the supply of chocolate bars I’d bought on my trip. And even with all this, my cousin consented to spend time with me. She is a very understanding person, and to this day (mysteriously, on her end) one of my dearest friends.

We spent a week together, aimless and kind of dumb, eating McDonalds, and visiting castles, and TopShop, and then one day we walked past a hair salon and there was a sign in the window: OAP Haircuts, £3. Which I thought seemed like a very reasonably price for a haircut, so I went in and asked for it. “I would like an OAP haircut, please.” I recall how the staff responded kind of strangely, but I just wrote that off as being because they didn’t much chance at this salon to cut the hair of a nubile young lass with long chestnut hair—everyone else in the place was kind of old, see? And afterwards, all this was just a funny story I told, about the time I went to Scotland and got my hair cut (which is far more characteristic than the bucket ride, if I’m being honest). We even took a photo to remember it by.

It was not until years later that I figured it all out, what an OAP haircut actually was, why everyone else in the salon had come in for a set. That an OAP is an “old age pensioner” (surely this had come up in Adrian Mole. How had I missed it) and what must the woman at the desk had thought when I walked into the place asking for a senior’s discount? (On the other hand, I was foreign. Being foreign helps you get away with so many things. Which makes me realize that “I think I’ve been audacious precisely twice in my life” is not exactly accurate, because doing the year we lived in Japan, we did audacious things all the time. As gaijin, no less was expected of us.)

My biggest takeaway from all of this is that sometimes, if you want a thing, all you’ve got to do is ask for it. Sometimes, due to sheer audacity—accidental or otherwise—the person you’re asking will have no choice, but to just give it to you. (Unless it is a pencil, and I am working at the library circulation desk. Because if I gave one to you, I’d have to give one to everybody.) That being naive and ignorant enough ask for a thing can sometimes actually be the key to getting it. And that’s not the whole story, of course, and anyone who tells you that your consciousness is the key to unlocking the universe IS LYING. But still, there is power in asking. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

February 8, 2019

Pencil: A Story With a Point

I will admit to being a bit wary of Pencil: A Story With a Point, by Ann Ingalls and Canadian illustrator Dean Griffiths. I am not convinced that the world necessarily needs more stories about anthropomorphized writing or colouring implements, plus I’d flipped through and saw it was also a story about the perils of too much screen time, and I’m wary of morals and screen fear-mongering. But the illustrations are very appealing (including very cool endpapers) so I sat down to read this with my daughter, and told her, “If we’re going to like this book, it’s going to have to be really good.”

And it was. Primarily, because (as might be discerned from the book’s subtitle) Pencil is playful with language and we never got tired of the puns–”You don’t measure up,” says the ruler in the junk drawer, alongside the spare battery who says, “He’ll get a real charge out of that/ ‘”Happy to hold things together,” said Paper Clip and Tape.’ It goes on, ‘”You’re a cut above the rest,’ said Scissors/ “Our friendship is permanent,” said Marker.’

And while this indeed a pencil versus tablet story for our screen saturated age, it’s also more interesting than just that, about a boy who loved his pencil until he abandoned it for tablet pursuits, and then Pencil was rescued from the junk drawer by the boy’s sister, and was there to see it happen: the tablet crashing to the floor and breaking, the boy distraught. Is there anything that Pencil can do?

The part where Pencil fails to make the boy feel better by showing him all the awesome things pencils can do (“He could be a tent pole for a really small tent.”) was very funny, and then, with the help of his junk drawer friends, Pencil arrives at an ingenious solution. Pencil and the boy are reunited. A happy ending to this warm and humorous book which demonstrates that a story with a point is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s all in the delivery, and this one is done right.

February 7, 2019

When Old Books Are New Again

In December, I posted a photo of the book I was reading, Busman’s Honeymoon, by Dorothy L. Sayers (which I purchased at Sleuth of Baker Street), and my friend Leah (a Sayers fan) commented in disbelief that there existed a copy of a Dorothy L Sayers book that was brand new. “I bet the pages don’t even fall out of that one,” Sara added to our conversation, and they really didn’t. And as the only other Sayers novels that I’ve read before have been cheap and battered paperbacks (one that was withdrawn from the North York Public Library), I understood their amazement at my pristine, brand new, spine un-cracked, and with an attractive cover. What does it even mean to read a Dorothy Sayers novel whose pages aren’t held together with an elastic band and which doesn’t smell like mildew? Surely the experience is a little inauthentic?

But it really wasn’t. Great binding and legible text would only add to the experience of a novel that’s pretty enjoyable in its own right. A fresh book will be approached with a spirit of freshness as well, which was only further demonstrated to me when I received a copy of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence for Christmas later that month.

Of course, it wasn’t just any copy of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I’d asked for the edition published by Toronto Gladstone Press (owned and operated by celebrated Canadian book designer Ingrid Paulson), a book I’d decided I had to have when I saw the image of the New York City map circa 1879 inside it. I am a sucker for maps in books, plus there were the opera glasses on the cover, and the beautiful, beautiful spine. Is it possible to fall in love with a book for its spine? Reader, I assure you that it is.

On her website, Paulson describes her mission with Gladstone Press as follows: “Old books aren’t always boring. They aren’t necessarily hard to read. They aren’t the ‘bran’ of literature (good for you, but not much flavour). They just end up looking that way. So I am trying to change that.”

I’ve never read The Age of Innocence before. Honestly, take an objective look at the covers of previous editions and ask yourself why I’d even want to. Because I felt like I probably should, mainly. (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1921!) But I’ve got a personal aversion to languid ladies lounging in chairs, and the 1993 movie tie-in edition makes me uncomfortable—what IS that man doing to poor Michelle Pfeiffer’s neck? But those opera glasses: that’s the book I want to read.

And I loved The Age of Innocence, reading it with a pleasure over a single day during the holidays, nothing bran about it. It was an absorbing story of a once-upon-a-time New York that was also timeless, and daring, grappling with problems of women’s liberation that we’ve still not got our head around a century later. Which is to say that there is nothing stale about this novel, and it was a pleasure to discover it in this beautiful edition whose design provides the freshness that such a book deserves.

February 6, 2019

Winter Reads on the Radio

I was on the radio talking winter reads this morning as ice pellets were falling from the sky. Two of them are books I’ve loved, and the other two are books I’m looking forward to loving. Listen again to my selections here: I come on at 42.10.

February 5, 2019

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, by Megan Gail Coles

If you hang a pistol in your novel’s title, law dictates that it’s going to go off before the book is over, even if your gun is a metaphoric one. And if the title of Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is not indication enough that this book is not going to be completely painless, its author, Megan Gail Coles even includes a warning: “This might hurt a little. Be brave.” But yes, be brave. Venture forth into this book, where the weather is extreme and feet are freezing, and nobody is holding your hand. Where the atoms fall like snowflakes in a blizzard, instead of orderly, in a straight line, one thing after another, as you’d expect from a more linear text. There are moments when you’ll find yourself lost in the storm, zero-visibility. But just keep going. Be brave.

There are sentences in Coles’ first book, Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome, that I have never forgotten, more than four years after I read them first. “The reason Garry did these things was ’cause he couldn’t afford any better. Half of what he earned over at Pretty Paws was carted off to Newfoundland. Child support for an autistic kid he had with Slutty Marie down Gilbert Street, this the result of a one night stand./ Have you ever heard a sadder story, Dame? I mean, really? I barely poked her.” Not a comfort read, you know what I am saying? Unforgettable, dark, slyly humorous, meticulously crafted sentences. I have been looking forward to Megan Gail Coles’ debut novel for a long time, and while it hurt a little, it also did not disappoint.

Ostensibly, Small Game Hunting... is the story of a trendy restaurant in St. John’s over the course of a single day in February while outside a snowstorm is raging. The chef has been sleeping with the hostess who is serving his wife’s father (whose money funds the establishment) as he has lunch with the city’s mayor. The bartender is in love with the hostess. The server is hungover. And the woman who’s been waiting in the doorway, without her boots on and cold and wet and aching feet, has ties to the hostess, as they grew up together in rural Newfoundland, and to one of the restaurant’s customers, who not long ago caused her irreparable harm in an act of violence. And all of these characters have parents and sisters and ex-best friends who now hate them for justifiable reasons. “Sometimes John looks around the restaurant and wonders who is in the most trouble.”

It’s not an easy book. There is violence and there is trauma and there is an attention to language that requires the reader’s full investment, and while that investment pays off big time, the demand might also try some readers’ patience. Because Megan Gail Coles is asking a lot of her readers here, but she more than pays it back—not least of all letting plot be a huge incentive to keep on turning the pages. The tension is enormous in this web of emotions, ties and betrayals, and that proverbial gun is due to go off at any moment. The chef is fucking the hostess in the kitchen as his wife is coming down the street—you get the idea. The novel moving between each character’s point of view to add layer upon layer of meaning, and each character’s section has also its own voice, specific diction, preoccupations. It is a dizzying experience indeed to reside in so many minds at once.

But it’s also so rich, and we gain sympathy for even the most hapless characters, because nearly everyone in this book has done despicable things. And we see too the way that certain characters are imminently more forgivable than others, how they get away with everything, and by “certain characters,” I mean white men. “The defences of their choices would be vicious.”

In a recent profile, Coles described her novel as “a declaration of war on misogyny,” which is such a perfect articulation. Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is about the nonchalance with which men do harm to women, which is also a microcosm for an economic and political system that renders certain kinds of people disposable. Characters in the novel are robbed of opportunity, are played by institutions they trusted, are wracked by debt and addiction and systemic oppression. There’s a Gatsbyesque arc to the inevitability of their fates. And the men who cheat? Those reckless, careless characters? The bullet was never going to hit them. One way or another, they’re always going to be fine.

February 4, 2019

Gleanings

January 31, 2019

On Meeting the Austins

Like many bookish people, A Wrinkle in Time played a big role in my literary foundation, although it was the third book in Madeleine L’Engle’s series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, that I was really passionate about, and have reread many times since. Because although …Planet is fantastical and concerned with time travel and parallel universes, it is very much of this world, which has always been what I’m interested in most. My favourite parts of A Wrinkle in Time were the scenes set in Meg Murry’s kitchen, the meals her mother cooked on her bunsen burner. Likewise, in …Planet we’re back in that same place as the Murry family (Meg pregnant with her first child) awaits perilous news in global politics, a ruthless dictator with his finger on the nuclear button…and Meg’s brother, Charles-Wallace, travels back through time with a unicorn, to mend the brokenness through history that led to the current crisis, brokenness that has always been rooted in family connections or lack thereof. I love this book, and it has brought me tremendous peace and comfort many times.

As a child, I had the fourth and fifth books in L’Engle’s “Time Quintet,” which Wrinkle begins, though I never had strong feelings about them and it’s possible I never actually finished reading An Acceptable Time. I also had some of the books in L’Engle’s other well-known series about the Austin family, but I remember finding them kind of strange and disorienting, which is odd because they are wholly set on this planet and do not feature centaurs. They’re mostly set in kitchens. You’d think they’d be straightforward—more on this in a moment. I have also long been intrigued by the idea that L’Engle consciously had set her books in two difference universes—The Time Quintet is set in a time she calls kairos (“real time, pure numbers with no measurement”) while the Austin series is chronos (“ordinary wrist-watch, alarm-clock time”). And that there are characters who move between the two is so fascinating. So when I saw the first three Austin books in beautiful recent paperback editions at the library, I signed them all out, and began to embark upon a new reading project, which was discovering Madeleine L’Engle from a different point of view.

Reading Meet the Austins was curious, because it was all very familiar. There were several sentences that I came upon and realize they’d been long ago made indelible upon my mind. I remembered the story from the book’s opening, when Meggy Hamilton comes to live with the Austin family after her pilot father is killed in a plane crash (which also killed his co-pilot, a friend of the Austin family, and his wife was made Meggy’s guardian but she’s a concert pianist who tours the world, so would not be able to provide a stable home life for the child). Possibly the story confused me as a child because it did not go according to trope—Meggy, the orphan, was not remotely plucky. Her presence is a hardship upon the family. Vicky Austin, the book’s narrator, is struggling with questions she’s having trouble answering, and thinking about her place within her family and her family’s place in the wider world. The family is idyllic. The parents are wise and cultured and are interested in their children’s ideas about the state of the world. Their dynamic is similar to the Murry’s, except that Vicky’s father is a family doctor and not an astrophysicist, and hasn’t been trapped inside another dimension. But the conversations they have as a family are the same, as the questions Vicky is grappling with similar to Meg Murry’s. Looking up at the stars and wondering what is our place in the cosmos—except that Vicky is doing so from the vantage point of a comfortable spot on a grassy hill.

I loved Meet the Austins. I found it intelligent and comforting, and I knew that Harriet (age 9.5) would love it too. There is not a plot exactly, instead episodes as the characters move in and out of weeks and days. I loved the way that Vicky understood that her family was a kind of cocoon and the questions she was asking about the world outside it, and her apprehensions were the kind that so many children have (and that I have never entirely been able to abandon). It’s a novel that respects its reader, and I enjoyed reading it so much that for days after I lamented that I did not have those few hours to go through again, when I had sat down with this book and been so thoroughly satisfied.

Meet the Austins was published in 1960. In 1962, L’Engle would publish her most famous work, A Wrinkle In Time, which must have meant that by the following year, when The Moon By Night (the next Austin book) was published, her world was a very different place. The world in general was a different place, however, and The Moon By Night is wholly infused with that ominousness, post-Cuban Missile Crisis and the imminent possibility of a nuclear strike. Also, Vicky Austin is 14, which is never a great age, and the world as she knows it has, in fact, already ended—her family are leaving their small town for a new life in New York City, but first, they’re about to drive across the country, a summer vacation never to be forgotten.

It’s a long journey, and on page 83, Vicky’s sister asks her older brother, ‘Hey, John, couldn’t you just tesser us there?’ and Vicky thinks, “It would have been nice if he could have, like Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, but that as Kipling would say, is another story.” Which is the first place L’Engle’s two universes intersect—I love the idea that Vicky Austin has read A Wrinkle in Time too.

The Moon by Night is remarkable for introducing the most irritating character in all of literature, Zachary Grey, certified beatnik, Holden Caulfield redux, as he’s been kicked out of prep school and calls everyone phoneys. He’s travelling across America with his own parents, who are disinterested and self-absorbed (although you might be too if Zachary Grey was your son). It’s the end of the world as we know it, but Zachary Grey feels fine, and he’s blasé about nuclear annihilation, and patronizes Vicky for her religious leanings. He is an appalling fuckwit, who latches onto Vicky as soon as they meet and calls her Vicky-O, and none of the other Austins can stand him, but Vicky finds him interesting which makes me concerned she’s going to spend her whole life attracted to damaged men who need fixing. He’s also a chauvinist, but who’s not in this novel. When Harriet read Meet the Austins, she was furious about the ways that Vicky is subservient to her brilliant older brother, and the gender dynamics are far more overt in the second book—”Daddy doesn’t like women in pants…” Oh, please. Vicky spends the entire book a passive agent as she’s passed from one jerky boy to the other. Her dad also uses judo kicks to take down a gang of “hoods” attacking their campsite. There’s a prowling bear, deadly floods, and at one point Zachary hides for hours so Vicky will worry come find him, that manipulative bastard, and there is a landslide and they’re trapped for hours, and she doesn’t even let the fact he’s put her life in jeopardy make her consider that she should never ever speak to him ever again.

Does it sound like I didn’t like this book? Not so. Weird ‘sixties slang and other factors aside, I still really loved it. And that I loved it in spite of all the reasons it was terribly annoying is a testament to its value. It’s a novel for a much older reader than Meet the Austins, maybe ideally one who is 39.5 years old and is worried about the state of our world. There is a line in it about Vicky and Zachary’s being the first generation who’s not assured of there being a future, and not the last then, I supposed, and there is some comfort in that, that our world has known peril before. Vicky thinks about her uncle, who was killed in the plane crash in the first book, and the genocide against Native Americans across the country they’re travelling (and it’s remarkable that L’Engle was using the term “genocide” in 1963), and Anne Frank in the Holocaust, and as they travel back east through Canada, she learns about the landslide in Frank, BC, and it haunts her just as much as everything does.

How do you live your life, how can you have faith any, knowing it could all just end at any moment for absolutely no reason? How do you love a world that is home to so much that is just awful? Questions I’m thinking about all the time, so The Moon By Night moved me, decades later. I appreciate too that L’Engle’s religious themes have a universality about them so that the answers apply to those of us who are not Christian, and further that her Christianity is underlined by such largesse, generosity, such grace.

Zachary Grey is one of the characters who appears in subsequent books featuring the Murry/O’Keefes. (Fingers crossed it’s just repeated scenes in which his eyeballs are pecked out by crows.) I want to read them now and see who he is in that other universe, and I look forward to the next Austin book now too, which apparently has its realism shaken a bit with the appearance of aliens. I can’t even… The Young Unicorns is next. I will keep you abreast of my progress.

January 29, 2019

Big Snow

Today instead of swimming, I shovelled snow; and we took the main streets to school instead of the side ones; and school started fifteen minutes late; and the people were walking and the cars were all buried; and there were sleds in the bike racks. People were outside their houses shovelling, and greeting passers-by; and pedestrians were smiling, and for those of us without mobility issues, it was all kind of beautiful and miraculous, except for climbing over snowbanks. But even that part was its own adventure.

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