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January 21, 2019

Bowlaway, Elizabeth McCracken

There is a house in Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel, Bowlaway, that defies all the rules of conventional architecture. It’s got eight sides and a cupola, a spiral staircase up the middle. “The walls were filled with lime and gravel and ground rice, and stuccoed with a combination of plaster and coal dust.” And in terms of narrative architecture, McCracken has similarly tossed out the rulebook for this, her sixth book and third novel. (Her two most recent books are the short story collection Thunderstruck and Other Stories, and a memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.)

The unconventional house is not actually the novel’s central edifice, however, although they’re both commanded by the same character, a woman we meet in Bowlaway’s very first sentence: “They found a body in the Salford Cemetary, but aboveground and alive.” This is Bertha Truitt, of the gapped teeth and enormous bosom, who claims to be the inventor of candlepin bowling and is utterly uninterested in delineating the story of where she came from. (For the most part, so is Bowlaway itself.) Like everything McCracken writes—sentences, paragraphs, characters, action scenes—Bertha Truitt is vivid. The heart and soul of the book, one would think, or at least its foundation or supporting beam, if we’re back to architecture. But forget the rules, remember? Because Bertha Truitt is deceased by page 78 (and no, this is not “a spoiler.” Bowlaway is a book that could not be possibly be spoiled), swept away to her death in the Great Molasses Flood, Boston, 1919.

I will admit that at first I was unsure of my footing as a reader in this narrative, because it really is one in which the bottom can fall out at any time. Because I’d arrived at Bowlaway with fixed ideas about the way a narrative should go, ie the protagonist should not necessarily drown in molasses on page 78. Because this novel isn’t easy, and it’s full of tricks and play, and ghosts, and babies who die before they’re born, and sons who are actually ex-husbands. It’s not an simple read, and the reader has to pay attention, but the rewards of that attention are considerable, immense. Her previous novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again, which I loved, was about two vaudeville performers, and Bowlaway is similarly larger than life (McCracken is also author of a novel called The Giant’s House), a spectacle.

But instead of a stage, the setting is a bowling alley, Bertha Truitt’s candlepin alley, Truitt’s, later named Bowlaway two generations following (although the family tree is complicated). Scene of one spontaneous combustion, as well as a murder, and home to a ghost, McCracken follows the alley and its regulars through three-quarters of the twentieth century in a novel that is unlike any other book you’ve read before, as rare as an eight-sided house inhabited by extinct avian species. With sentences and imagery that are shocking in their freshness and perfection—the mother who gives out love in homeopathic doses, say. There is no other writer who writes like Elizabeth McCracken, and I’ve never read a book quite like Bowlaway.

August 7, 2014

Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken

thunderstruckIf not for the internet, I never would have heard of Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken. But the wonderful Sara O’Leary had wonderful things to say about it on Twitter, and then it was this post from the Parnassus Books blog that clinched it, the line, “I would rather be funny than just about anything.” So I ordered a copy, and was disappointed to have to put it aside before we departed on vacation last week, because its first line was, “Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees.” 

Not that the book is funny, exactly, or that McCracken isn’t funny, because she is, but the book is more heartbreaking than anything, or maybe I mean heartwringingit’s amazing and magnificent. Passages like, “The dead live on in the homeliest of ways. They’re listed in the phone book, They get mail. Their wigs rest of styrofoam heads at the back of closets. Their beds are made. Their shoes are everywhere.” Passages you want to underline, and annotate with, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” The most remarkable combination of specific details and universality. The whole book is like this. I loved it. (It also reminded me of the best parts of Lee Kvern’s remarkable collection, which I enjoyed earlier this year.)

The stories are unfathomable, approached from the oddest angles, but their pieces fall together in a perfect kind of sense. In “Something Amazing”, two troubled families come together in a remarkable collision that changes both of them forever. In “Property”, a widower moves into a rental house and is overwhelmed by the detritus of the house’s owner; in “Juliet”,  a murder sends shock waves across a small town, in particular amongst the staff at the public library; in “The House of the Three Legged Dogs”, a British ex-pat hits rock-bottom, his house sold out from under him by his alcoholic son; in “Hungry”, a young girl stays with her grandmother while her father is critically ill in the hospital, and the grandmother must protect the girl and process her own complicated grief.

In “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston”, the discovery of a young boy shoplifting in a discount supermarket is interpreted differently by the boy himself and the supermarket manager who imagines himself the boy’s saviour. In the title story, a family tries to get away from their teenager daughter’s problems by relocating to Paris for a summer, only to discover that her problems travel with them, to devastating effect. And the last lines of the book? The man who “…felt as though he were diving headfirst into happiness. It was a circus act, a perilous one. Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip.” And I’ve read those lines over and over, marvelling at their imagery, pondering their puzzle, their resonance, in particular in light of incidents within the story itself. Throughout the collection, these passages that strike you, suggesting deeper rumblings—the book’s title is so perfect.

Of course, I’ve outlined the plots of the collection’s various stories, but they aren’t really what the stories are about. Many of them are about grief, about the peculiarity of details during the times in life in which we’re grief-struck, or stricken at all. They’re about human connection in surprising places, about misunderstandings in which the connection is missed. They’re about the things that get lost and what we choose to preserve. They’re funny even with the sadness, a many sided shape. And they’re absolutely extraordinary.

September 23, 2020

If Sylvie Had Nine Lives, by Leona Theis

Okay, imagine the craft and form of Caroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces, a premise and scope like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and an attention to the details of ordinary life that recalls the work of Carol Shields? (There’s also a Bronwen Wallace People You’d Trust Your Life To vibe that I can’t quite put my finger on…)

If Sylvie Had Nine Lives, by Leona Theis, is SO GOOD, a novel-in-stories (for real. It works.) that begins in 1974 as nineteen-year-old Sylvie is just three days away from marrying Jack, for better or for worse…

And the book that follows explores the many outcomes and possibilities created by Sylvie’s choices, several forks in the road, and why they matter, or why they don’t. What if life is not a river, the novel’s brief intro suggests; what if it were a delta instead?

Sylvie leaves Jack, and moves in with a roommate whose violent boyfriend’s advances she manages to refuse. Or Sylvie marries Jack and saves his life when he falls into the lake. Or she leaves Jack a few years down the line, pregnant. She marries her best friend from high school has two kids. She marries nobody and starts her own business. She and Jack spend their twentieth wedding anniversary watching the OJ Simpson Bronco chase. Sylvie remains single and becomes a university professor. And so on, these stories showing very different outcomes of Sylvie moving through the decades, getting older, the very same character (one with a propensity for terrible choices) contending with different circumstances.

This premise could be considered a gimmick, but the writing is just so excellent that the whole book shines, and the stories culminate the same way they might in a more traditional narrative. Perhaps some readers could become frustrated with each new story destabilizing what came before, but I just found it really interesting—and it works on a meta level too with Sylvie considering several times the different roads and doors she might have chosen. It is interesting also that the reader would mind at all if the “truth” of a fictional person’s story was undermined—if you’ve read the last page of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Isn’t is amazing that it matters so much? And it’s a sign that the author has achieved something that it does matter.

I’ve not read anything by Leona Theis before, but she’s been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Award, appeared in The Journey Prize Stories, and had the amazing Elizabeth McCracken select her story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person Through Yoga” as winner of the American Short Fiction contest in 2016, which is the coolest honour I can think of. And this novel lives up to the anticipation of such a biography—the book is wonderful. Definitely my first favourite book of the fall season.

January 8, 2020

A Delicious, Meandering Journey

‘Interestingly, I find myself leaping/flipping/scrolling past the “best of” lists and instead gravitating more and more to the reflections about reading as exploration, revelation, often deliciously meandering journey, shared experience, opportunity to bust out of staid categories and forge new ones … and more.’ —Vicki Ziegler

Sometimes I think I spend my whole year reading just go get to this point, when the best-of lists are compiled, required reads for book club or review assignments are completed, when the literary year is done and dusted…but there’s still at least a week of time for reading left.

Which is when I turn off my WiFi, take an internet break, out-of-office reply—”I’ll get back to you in the new year.” And I sit down to read.

I read differently in the holidays, when the working is all done. Instead of new releases (because I don’t want to miss a thing), I turn to yellowed paperbacks purchased at book sales, back-list titles by authors I love, strange books plucked from Little Free Libraries, and rescued from the streets. Books that are easy not to make a priority in my literary year, but on holiday, they take precedent—and my reading life is so much more interesting for it.

They weren’t all winners—after having now read two books by Ottessa Moshfegh, I think I can finally conclude that her work is just not to my taste, for example. But altogether, these books were part of why my holiday was so lovely—and I loved too their connections, how they spoke to one another, as though book after book was just one book, and the story flowed and almost made sense.

Of course, it wasn’t all obscure. Ben Lerner’s new novel, The Topeka School, is one of the top rated books of 2019, and I bought it after hearing Lerner and his mother Harriet Lerner (author of iconic book The Dance of Anger) on a podcast. Hot tip: if you want to me to buy a book by a man, make him fictionalize his feminist mother in that book and even give her a point of view. I’d already tried to read The Topeka School twice, but had been diverted, not because anything was wrong with it, but other books kept showing up before I got to page 12. Finally got past page 12 (third time’s charm) and really liked this one, and had my mind-scrambled by its meta-ness. It was such a curious and interesting book, which captures a cultural moment (1997) that was pivotal in my own experience (I turned 18 that year, and the memories are very vivid) and connects that moment in several ways to our present.

I also read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, another top book of 2019, and am so glad I did—plus it reminded me of Jesmyn Ward’s 2018 Sing Unburied Sing, I loved the depiction of 1970s’ New York, and oh, the twist. The book is brutal, but there is more to the novel than just that.

The third 2019 book I read was Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, which I got for Christmas. I never get books for Christmas, because I’m very much a self-directed book buyer—but my husband heard me talking about how I was more than 500th on a wait-list for this book at the library, and bought it for me. And I loved it so much. Probably deserves a post of its own, but yes, it had everything and was so devourable—by Boxing Day, I’d got to the end.

Had very much a New York streak going on, especially between the Brooklyn of Lerner’s book and Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary, and Fleishman and My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

And then I left town to finally finish Elizabeth McCracken’s Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry, her first book re-released along with her latest, the novel Bowlaway (a novel that was delicious and meandering itself, and also one of my favourite books of the year). The mingling humour and sadness—she’s such an incredible writer.

And then Woolf’s Night and Day, which I bought in the summer after I saw an ad on Instagram for a 1970s version of the novel whose cover I fell for. It’s always funny to be reading early Woolf, back when her narrative style was so conventional. The characters were a bit wooden, and the story more about ideas than its people actually being realized, but it was still really enjoyable, and Woolf after all.

And speaking of conventional, Penelope Fitzgerald is conventional never, but The Beginning of Spring (which I finished reading on the morning of New Year’s Eve) is perhaps the most straightforward of her novels that I have read. (As I’ve written before, learning to appreciate Penelope Fitzgerald is a project of mine.) I like to read a bit of Penelope Fitzgerald during the holidays out of nostalgia for the year I read her biography by Hermione Lee, which was one of the best reading extravaganzas I have ever had. Anyway, The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in 1913, and this reviewer calls it Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. I really loved it.

Before the year was out, I had also finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, a book she wrote in Italian about the experience of learning and then to committing to reading and writing in Italian. (Which would lead me to Natalia Ginzburg—but first!!)

First, I ended 2019 and started 2020 with At the Pond, a collection of essays (a gift from my friend Nathalie) about swimming at London’s Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, contributors including two of my favourite swimlit stars (Leanne Shapton and Jessica J. Lee) AND my very favourite everything, Margaret Drabble. Nice to be returned to the London of Night and Day, although Katharine Hilbery never went swimming.

(On New Year’s Eve, Stuart and I both had Taylor Swift’s “London Boy” in our head, which is a terrible song, the situation exacerbated by the London locations of our respective reads [Stuart is LOVING Girl Woman Other, which, incidentally, was the second book I broke up with Ben Lerner for] and every time anyone in my book mentioned Highgate, I’d start singing, “…And I love his best mate. All the rumours are true…”)

Two things I loved about At the Pond: cultural diversity of the authors made it such a more interesting collection than it might have been. And the essay by nonbinary writer So Mayer on their complicated relationship with the space “for women only”—which has long welcomed transwomen among them without fuss, save for the activists who showed up at a recent community meeting in furor about this.

Then I read The Secret Sisterhood, about women’s literary friendships, which I bought in March on a weekend in Niagara on the Lake with my two best friends of more than a quarter century. The Jane Austen chapter was a bit slight, but I enjoyed the book and nice to bring things around with the final section on Woolf and Katherine Mansfield—especially since it focussed at lot on Night and Day (which Mansfield wrote a scathing review of, which made their friendship at bit…awkward).

And finally, All Our Yesterdays, by Natalia Ginzburg, the kind of book that it might be possible to put off reading forever, because it’s old with an unappealing cover, and pages and pages of dense text. I’d bought it at a colleage book sale last year after reading Gizburg’s essay collection Little Virtues, but novel sat unread on my shelf. And then I gave it away to my local Little Free Library, which I regretted after running into an Italian-Canadian friend at the library who was returning a pile of Ginzburg’s novels in their original language. She extolled the authors virtues, so when I happened to walk by the Little Free Library and saw All Our Yesterdays up for grabs, I stole it back. Finally cracking it open now because Jhumpa Lahiri had also written about Ginzburg, and it seemed like a sign.

I loved this book. Sweeping, strange, curious and compelling, it’s the story of two families in Northern Italy and how they change as WW2 arrives and continues. The narrative is very matter-of-fact and understated, creating a sense of inevitability (it actually reminded me a but of Girl Woman Other, how a single story can contain so much and so broadly). The banality of living under Fascism, and then occupied Italy after the Germans arrive, and the casual brutality of war.

Now I really want to track down a copy of Ginzburg’s Family Sayings, which won the Strega Prize and which seems to be cited as her best work. (PS Just found out it’s in print with the title Family Lexicon. YAY!!)

January 4, 2016

Holiday Reading Joy

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One day back into our routine, and I find I’m happy to be here. It’s been so long, with the sick-filled holidays and my three-plus weeks of pneumonia, and while I was nervous about this return to the real world, I find it much more pleasant and even more relaxing than where we’ve been lately. Although, granted, this is after just one day. Get back to me, perhaps, at the end of the week. But the one thing I do miss about the holiday was the reading—it was wonderful.

I was reading not-new and not-notable books in the weeks before Christmas, and enjoying the experience entirely. But then I picked up Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken, and found myself reading notably in spite of myself. It was so terrific. I’d adored McCracken’s short story collection, Thunderstruck, and I spent last Christmas Day sobbing while reading her exquisite memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. I read her The Giant’s House last summer, and liked it well enough, but it lacked the immediacy of her other books. And I had been reluctant to finally pick up Niagara Falls… because it was about men, a comedy team who find fame on the vaudeville circuit and in the golden days of Hollywood—nothing about that grabbed me. But the book did. Oh, its pacing, and energy, and to be so sad and so funny, and so completely realized. Truly, one of the best not-new books I read in 2015, and I’m so pleased that I finally did.

After that, I read Cassandra at the Wedding, which I bought at Ben McNally Books right before Christmas. I bought this one on the recommendation of Sarah from Edge of Evening, and was so pleased that I did. As Sarah writes, Dorothy Baker conjures Joan Didion in her setting but is entirely different in tone and approach—more wry than wrought, humour bubbling to the surface even in the darkest moments. It’s a book about twin sisters that seems like a great companion to Libby Crewman’s new novel, Split. About the connection between sisters and what happens when it’s severed, and how one person’s reality can be interpreted by another. Like so many books published by New York Review Books, Baker is doing fascinating things with narrative voice, and I appreciate how hearing from the slightly-deranged Cassandra’s sister Judith turns the whole story on its heel.

Then I read Inside Out, which is an essay by Rebecca Solnit with paintings by Stefan Kurtan. I’d asked for it for Christmas because I love Rebecca Solnit and wish to read everything she’s ever written, and also because it’s an essay on the subject of houses and homes, which I find really interesting. And it was. I loved her thoughts on materials and materialism, and the home as an extension of the female body while the automobile is that of the male (and therefore mobile), which connected to all kinds of things I’ve been thinking about Mad Men as we’re rewatching Season 1. Reading Rebecca Solnit is never not satisfying, and the book is beautiful.

I read Because of the Lockwoods next, by Dorothy Whipple. A Persephone Book, which is never short of extraordinary. I bought it in April when we were in London, because we’d been visiting Lancashire and she’s a Lancashire author and also because she is compared to Barbara Pym, similarly ripe for a revival, says Harriet Evans, but even a better writer. Whipple (whose unfashionable name is perhaps part of the reason she’s so fallen out of favour, writes Evans) is meant to be utterly readable, her novels absorbing. But I was dismayed to discover that they’re also 500 pages long, and you know how I feel about long books. It was one thing to carry such a doorstop across the sea, but then to actually pick it up and read it? Clearly I needed a holiday, a bit of space in which to make the long read happen—but then the book turned out to be everything Evans said. I read the whole thing in 2 days and now want to read everything in print by Dorothy Whipple. The novel was engaging, surprising, rich with complex characters and situations. I really loved it. Was dismayed to read that Virago Books was so thorough anti-Whipple. Thank goodness for Persephone for bring her back in print.

And then finally, I read The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, by Laura Miller, which was a marvellous celebration of reading, of literary criticism, and of the Narnia books and their creator, as well as critiquing the considerable problems with the two latter points. As we’re smack in the middle of reading the Narnia series (all of us for the first time!) in our family, I was glad to learn so much more about them and their context, and there was no shortage of fascinating Narnia and CS Lewis trivia, so that I become as uninteresting as I always do whilst reading excellent non-fiction (avidly sharing details, beginning every sentence with, “Did you know…) We’re reading Prince Caspian now, and I’m loving it all the more for Miller’s book.

August 19, 2015

Summer Vacation Reads: The Syllabus

While it is true that the books one reads on her vacation can in fact make or break that vacation, it is essential that the reader not worry too much about all that. That she not fuss  about reading books that are geographically fitting, or thematically on point; there needn’t necessarily be a syllabus for one’s vacation reading, is what I mean. And not because a syllabus is not important, but because a syllabus has a strange way of asserting itself. It’s a kind of magic, I think, how when a few random books are selected to be read one after another, they end up speaking to each other in uncanny ways, and echoing the world around their reader.

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While I take full credit for reading seven books during my recent one-week summer vacation (with children, no less) full disclosure requires me to inform you that I spent 1.5 hours waiting by myself for our delayed rental car with Nora Ephron’s Heartburn in my bag the day we left, so I got a jump start on the reading. I finished that book before we arrived, but this is kind of cheating because I started it before we even got on the road. In fact, I was reading it on the subway on my way to pick up the car, strap-hanging with one hand, the book in the other, when Rachel’s analysis group gets held up by a robber, and I almost fell over with the pacing of that scene, the absurdity, surprise. The book’s mingling of comedy and tragedy is so wonderful, and the only way a writer could ever get a book like this to work so well, I decided, would be for her to be Nora Ephron. From a technical standpoint, so much is wrong with Heartburn, but it’s perfect. I also tried the Potatoes Anna recipe and it was so ridiculously delicious, and not just because it was butter-laden. I really loved this novel, which introduced what my vacation-reads thesis was ultimately to be: books about marriage, but from often-unexamined points of view. Ephron’s roman a clef about the end of a marriage taking her reader on the roller coaster ride of emotions, the will-she-stay, will-she-go, will-she-plummet-or-soar questions as Rachel navigates her heartbreak. I loved it.

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And then Still Life, by Louise Penny, her first Inspector Gamache novel. Which is one of the two mysteries I read that week, neither actually according to the syllabus, but what kind of fun is consistency? Whereas Still Life is so fun, wonderfully good. (I was reading it partly in preparation for the new Gamache book that comes out next week.) Though if I had to make this novel pertain to the syllabus somehow, it would be that Louise Penny novels are books that both parties in my marriage are crazy about. Having Stuart to talk about them with is one of my favourite parts of the reading.

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And then Barbara Pym, and I do love to reread her in the summer. I can never remember her titles distinctly until I reread them and it all comes back. Some Tame Gazelle is the one with a Harriet, who lives in a country parish with her sister Belinda. It is also the one with a caterpillar in the cauliflower cheese. Harriet is mad for curates and Belinda harbours an impossible old love for the Archdeacon, who is married. These longings not quite the stuff of Jane Austen (with whom Pym is so often compared) in that the novel only ends with just one wedding and not six, and neither Harriet nor Belinda are the bridal party. And yet these unrequited affections are not meaningless or unimportant: ”Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love.” Marriage need not be the end of the story for a life to be full and complete.

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Next was The Giant’s House, by Elizabeth McCracken, whose Thunderstruck was one of my favourite books of last year. I didn’t like it as much as the short stories—the sadness brought me down and I found that the narrator didn’t give us enough of herself, when she was the most fascinating character in the book. But McCracken is wonderful, and I’ll read everything she writes. Her narrator a rather Pymmish character, a librarian who meets a young boy with giantism. Peggy is drawn to James and desperate to be part of his orbit, never mind the different in their ages or height. It’s a story with a compelling sense of place and time, and richly drawn secondary characters. Two points about the marriage: that Peggy describes herself as the product of two parents who were in love with each other, and that is a blow no child can recover from. And McCracken too describes a Pymmish arrangement, a love that was not conventional or a marriage as we’d understand it, but meaningful and profound all the same.

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And then I read Laurie Colwin. Oh my god, Laurie Colwin. I have not reread her books in so long, and I think I was a bit too young when I read them the first time. She is so excellent and funny, and so perfectly strangely skewed. Her book, Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, is about a young woman who must renegotiate the terms of her life after the sudden death of her husband in a sailing accident. A husband with whom, she admits, she probably would have divorced—he was young and reckless, and she came along for the ride. So yes, she is devastated, but the ride is over, and what now? The narrative zeroing in on all the parts lesser writers might skip, the seemingly mundane. Colin has unconventional views about marriage and fidelity, and oh yes, she believes in love, but life is as complicated as her characters’ psyches. I loved this book and devoured it, and reread Goodbye Without Leaving last week and then ordered Passion and Affect and The Lone Pilgrim right after, which are the two remaining Laurie Colwin novels I haven’t read yet. Oh, you have to read her. She is so so good.

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The Home, by Penelope Mortimer, was my biggest surprise. She is the most undated 1970s’ novelist ever, and I remember thinking that when I read My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof, but this one could have been written tomorrow. (This is the novel I have been wanting to read for years because Carol Shields and Blanche Howard wrote about it in their collected letters.) It was so funny, contemporary, surprising, and strong. About recently-divorced Eleanor who embarks upon her new life as a divorcee after 25 years of marriage, at first with wide eyes and ideas about a home where her grown children would return, her youngest son could grow up secure, where she would have parties, entertain lovers, and be free, for the first time in her life. But reality doesn’t quite measure up (and oh, there is a heartbreaking scene where she has prepared herself and her home for the arrival of a lover, with tragic results). Eleanor’s children are so distinct, loveable, terrible and annoying—I was most amused by the family’s reaction to the eldest, Marcus, a homosexual who lives in France. This was a Margaret Drabble-ish read, but also particular and so excellent. This is a book that absolutely has to be brought back into print.

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And then I read Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, which I loved, but there is no way I’m going to see the movie because it might terrify me. The book was definitely not on the syllabus, but it was so good though that I couldn’t put it down and finished before the sun went down. Which mean that I was left bookless: usually a terrifying situation. But kind of a liberating one, after seven days of mad marathon reading.

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I am thoroughly incapable of reading nothing though. That night I made do with two 1980s’ Archie Double Digests, and they were fantastic.

July 23, 2015

Holiday Reads

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We leave for the cottage on Saturday, and obviously we are not remotely packed, except my stack of books which I’ve had ready for weeks. Heartburn by Nora Ephron, a battered copy I found somewhere recently. I read it long ago but want to read it again as part of my research into funny woman authors. Still Life by Louise Penny, which was the first Gamache mystery. I’ve never read it before, and I always read Louise Penny at the cottage, and it will be good prep for the new Gamache book out later next month. The Home by Penelope Mortimer, who I was reminded of when my Book Club comrade sent this link, and I’ve wanted to read this title since seeing it referenced in Carol Shields and Blanche Howard’s letters. Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, by Laurie Colwin, another reread, for funny women reasons and because it’s Laurie Colwin. The Giant’s House, by Elizabeth McCracken, because I am nostalgic for when I read her Thunderstruck last summer. And a reread of Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle, because what is a summer without a novel by Barbara Pym?

July 7, 2015

No Rain

IMG_20150624_081645I ran into someone last week who remarked upon photos of my family on Facebook which give the mostly-correct impression that we are good at spending our days. Though it’s not always the whole story, and I let her know about the weekend previous, when it rained for two days, all our plans got flooded, and I cried because the soup I made tasted just like dirt. She asked me why I don’t take pictures of that, or blog about it, and that’s a good question, but the answer is mostly, why bother? It was bad enough living through it once, so why on earth would I want to re-experience it by writing it down?

IMG_20150629_162615Whereas the last few days, summer proper, have been glorious. No rain. We had a very good week last week, adjusting well to school’s out. I love not having to schlep anyone out the door in the morning, and the day continues on apace. Harriet watches movies through Iris’s nap while I get some work done, and I begin the rest of my work once the kids go to bed, though the problem with this is that they’re going to bed later and later. But alas. I am also in love with our teenage babysitter, whose alarm at Iris eating dirt the other day was totally adorable.

IMG_20150704_123110On Friday, we spent a morning at the park with friends, perfect weather, shaded by trees so we didn’t even have to apply sunscreen. The children played and got dirty while their mothers talked about books and writing, and life seemed very much in balance. On Saturday we had a busy day of Fringe Festival and then the book launch for Kate Beaton’s The Princess and the Pony at Little Island comics, which was fantastic. And that night we hung out on our friends’ amazing rooftop patio celebrating the 4th of July in the company of excellent Americans (3 out of 4 of whom were under 6). We went home before we’d drank too much so Sunday wouldn’t be a disaster.

IMG_20150705_100242And it wasn’t! The #SummerofRavines continued with an exploration of the St Clair Ravine, which was amazing, up through Mount Pleasant Cemetery and along the Beltline Trail to Oriole Park, which has a fantastic playground so the children were delighted. My secret plan is to trick them into liking nature rambles, and so far so good. We were even home again for nap, which is my definition of a proper kind of day. I spent Iris’s nap in the hammock revelling in wifi, putting the finishing touches on 49thShelf’s 2015 Fall Fiction Preview, which you can read here.

IMG_20150629_195833And now I have decamped for a few days visiting my parents in Peterborough, which is the first time I’ve ever done such a thing solo, so dependent am I upon my husband (who needs to stay home and go to work). This is the longest time we’ve been apart since 2003, which is kind of ridiculous, but I like our life this way. But on the other hand, it’s nice to know how much I’m capable on my own and also to have the experience of missing each other. It’s novel. The good news is that nobody threw up in the car, and also that we have a car, which means when I needed an emergency bookstore visit tonight to pick up a copy of The Folded Clock: A Diary, by Heidi Julavits, I was able to do so with alacrity.

I’m now reading Look at Me, by Jennifer Egan, which feels summery to me because I read Goon Squad at the cottage a couple of years ago. It’s reminiscent of the later book, but a bit off-putting too, so I’ll be reading the Julavits alongside it. And yes, I get holiday book nostalgia a lot. I read Elizabeth McCracken’s amazing Thunderstruck last summer the day we came home from our cottage (I remember walking home from the subway reading the book once I’d dropped off our rental car) and now I’m yearning to read another of her books when we go away in a few weeks. I’ve got The Giant’s House and Niagara Falls All Over Again on order, one of which I’ll be reading along with rereads of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and something by Laurie Colwin because I’ve been thinking a lot about funny, smart novel by women writers—the kind of book I want to write. So I’ll be reading for pleasure and also for inspiration.

January 8, 2015

Vacation Reads Part 2: All the Best/All the Rest

I don’t actually care about the weather, or the accommodations, or the buffet. If the books are no good, then the vacation is ruined. And this is never more important than when one is vacationing at home, as I was over the holidays. I finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s Lila on Christmas Eve, confident that the flat rectangular packages under our Christmas tree would yield great reading, and was I ever right.

exact-replicaThe first book I set to reading was An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken, which I read in a day, and this meant that I spent all day Christmas being discovered hiding with my paperback, weeping, and exclaiming, “This book is just so good.” Stuart felt bad at first: “I got you a book that makes you sad.” But I shushed him. The sadness was important, but not the point. That I was weeping was a testament to this book, whose resistance of sentimentality is most remarkable. And it was also funny. Plus, brilliant. A memoir by the author of Thunderstruck and Other Stories, which was one of my top books of 2014. It’s the story that bridges the stillbirth of her first child with the birth of her second, a healthy boy, a year later, and it probes the edges of motherhood and humanity in a way that’s so important because few storytellers go to these places, where so many people go all the time. I’d recommend this book to anyone who is literate—no experience or interest in the subject matter required. It is a truly extraordinary memoir. I can’t wait to read McCracken’s other books.

Book Cover The UThe other book I got for Christmas was the essay collection The Unspeakable, by Meghan Daum, which tied into the McCracken memoir in its probing of edges. (Daum is also editor of the essay anthology Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, out in March.) These essays are also about the things nobody talks about—what really happens when your mother dies, particularly if your relationship has always been fraught; what we’re looking for in dating and relationships, and in marriage; about nostalgia (though, truthfully, everybody talks about that) and about how the soundtrack to your twenties becomes “unbearable to listen to in twenty years…not because they…sound dated and trite but because they…sound like the lining of your soul”); about filling the supposed space in one’s life by not having children; on being “an honorary dyke”; playing charades with Nicole Kidman and Nora Ephron; being in a coma (last two examples in which “unspeakableness” becomes literal). Truthfully, some parts of these pieces flirted around the edges of the mundane, and really the guiding principle of these essays is their singular point of view, by the contrarian misfit, Daum, an excellent writer who examines everything critically, including her own insatiable thirst for discovering an authentic way to be in the world. There is a point to everything.

exmoorNext, I reread The Witch of Exmoor by Margaret Drabble because, while she is one of my favourite authors, most of her output has in fact faded into a blur in my mind and I need to revisit many of them to remember what was what. It is possible that the books that had faded aren’t her best—that the fading is a mark of the books rather than my reading. Exmoor didn’t blow my mind. It received some poor reviews when it was published in 1996, James Wood contending that her Dickensian project lacked the depth of the original, that her characters were never allowed to be fully developed human beings and rather were pieces their author moved around on a game board. Though this is actually what I love best about Drabble’s work, her command of her fictional universe, the metafictional elements. I wonder if the novel was a victim of timing though: a year later was Labour’s election victory on the UK, the advent of the internet would also bring about rapid change. Her portrayal of “the way we live now” was almost so much on the cusp of something that the cusp itself seems less relevant in retrospect.

51N9Q7S021L.jpgAnd then I read Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe, the first novel by author of the epistolary memoir Love, Nina. It’s possible that my aversion to the Drabble was too much heavy for holiday, and Man at the Helm was a perfect counter. Nancy Mitford meets Sue Townsend, the story of Lizzie Vogel, a young girl whose wealthy parents divorce in the 1970s, the children and their mother relocating to a Leicestershire village whose inhabitants are hostile to newcomers, in particular households without “a man at the helm.” And so Lizzie and her sister hatch a plot to find their mother a new man, a plan that has the unintended consequence of their mother sleeping with half the husbands in the village, doing her reputation not much good. Oh, it was so funny, and I loved it.

housekeeper-and-professorAnd then my final holiday read was The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, which I plucked off the shelf at Book City because I liked the cover, and I loved the book for that reason very much before I read it, and then I read it, and there were other reasons. That it was a translation, first, which meant I was succeeding at my New Year’s Resolution before the New Year had even started. I also like that it was another book I read in a day, which is one of my great pleasures. It’s the story of a housekeeper who works for a former professor of mathematics with a brain injury that means he has a short-term memory of only 80 minutes, but the professor is taken with her young son, he teaches them both about the poetry of numbers, and the three of them together form a tenuous family unit for a while, a remarkable equation, the opposite of their previously lonely lives.

December 14, 2014

2014 Books In My Head List

I feel strange about this list. First, because my reading seemed less monumental this year—I missed the blockbusters like The Goldfinch, or The Interestings.  Second, my local bookshop closed, which is from where so much of my zest for reading came—I am sure I missed many books that in previous years, Book City staff would have kept neatly stacked on their new books table. And third, there are so many 2014 books I haven’t read yet. The scramble to get them all read was making me crazy, so I gave up, and now they’ll have to wait for the new year.

Luckily, books keep. Case in point: there are books here on the 2014 list that weren’t published in 2014 at all.

While this is kind of my Top Books of 2014 list, I’m thinking of it more as The Books In My Head list. The books whose reading experiences I remember so vividly, the books I kept talking about, whose characters, stories and ideas have lived on in my mind long after the last page was finally read.

In a particular order, which is alphabetical.

ellen-in-piecesFitting though, that Caroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces is topper most. It may well have been. This is the book that was oddly overlooked by awards juries, and yet readers have embraced it, Ellen love-ins taking place on Twitter and Facebook quite regularly, I am finding. I have recommended it widely, and only received glowing reports back. It’s a funny, brutal, rich and challenging book. I’ve never read such an unflinching story of cancer (and love, and aging, and motherhood, and mortality). As I wrote in August, “It’s a brave take on things, really, but typical, because the exquisite nature of the entire book comes from Adderson defying her readers’ expectations, surprising you with every line, with every turn of the page.” I do think that Ellen in Pieces is THE book of the year, and you’re missing out if you haven’t read it yet.

Purchase Ellen in Pieces from McNally Robinson

just-pretendingI read Lisa Bird-Wilson’s Just Pretending in May, starting it while we were visiting Winnipeg, and just after reading Pat Barker’s Union Street, a collection that situates the lives of working-class English women similarly to how Bird-Wilson presents First Nations women in Canada. At the time, we were promoting The M Word and it was Mother’s Day, so Bird-Wilson’s themes of motherhood resonated with me, and complicated my own understanding of these themes in my comfy middle-class context. The stories in Just Pretending portray “the wholeness of marginalized women’s experiences, experiences which hinge on maternity, on motherhood and daughterhood, and on what happens when these connections are broken,” and they’re so important now with untold stories of Canada’s Indigenous women’s experiences finally being brought to (some) light.

Purchase Just Pretending from McNally Robinson

9781459708433_cover_coverbookpageIt was on Mother’s Day weekend that we visited Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge, the same day that Steve Burrows was appearing there to promote his book, A Siege of Bitterns. I was happy to buy a copy, as I’d been intrigued with his novel about a birdwatching detective, and I was so pleased to absolutely adore it. Unsurprisingly—the book has received rave reviews. The crux to the mystery’s solution involved not just birdwatching, but grammar. This book is a geek’s paradise. I’ve also been pleased to have happy readers reporting back after following my recommendation for this one. And good news: Burrows next title in the Birder Murder Mystery series is A Pitying of Doves, out this spring. I am so excited.

Purchase A Siege of Bitterns from McNally Robinson

eating-habitsI’m so grateful to the good people at All Lit Up, without whom I might never have discovered Megan Gail Coles and her story collection Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome. Which contains this paragraph: “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. We weren’t even lying down. It’s like her body sucked me sperm right inside her that night, vacuum cunt on her. Don’t ever have a go at the neighbourhood whore in an alley. Nothing good will come of it.” How could you not want to read this book?

Purchase Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome from McNally Robinson

one-hour-in-parisUnfortunately, as 2014 progressed, Karyn L. Freedman’s One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery only became more and more important. I read it last spring as I pushed my baby in a swing. “The world, [Freedman] tells us with two decades of perspective in addition to her own violent rape, is a dangerous place for women, as statistics demonstrate in places as close as our own neighbourhoods and as far away as the war-wracked Congo. But nobody talks about these experiences, suggesting that such incidents are rare, suggesting to those lucky enough to not know better that sexual violence is a crime of circumstance, that it’s something most of us should be able to sidestep. It’s why newspaper columnists suggest that if a young woman refrains from drinking to excess, she might not get raped, and if she is raped, she should have known better. Thereby perpetuating victim’s sense of her own complicity in the crime against her, ensuring her silence, and so the cycle continues.” I’m so pleased that this book has been shortlisted for the BC National Non-Fiction Award.

Purchase One Hour in Paris from McNally Robinson

mommyblogsI read Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood by May Friedman in September, and it was huge for me for all kinds of reasons. It laid the framework for the latest session of my blogging course, convinced me of the usefulness of academic theory for the very first time, and also that the history of women and blogging is one that is seriously under-documented and certainly worth telling. While Friedman’s research pertains to mommyblogs in particular (and her conclusions are always surprising, illuminating—if mommyblogs seem tired to you, she invites you to think again), it’s also hugely relevant to women and blogging in general, and is a fascinating and nuanced depiction of 21st century motherhood. And mostly, I am so struck by her notions of the usefulness of uncertainty (which reminded me of Rebecca Solnit, and ultimately led to cake): “In trying to form conclusions about mommybloggers—and about mothers—I am reminded of my children attempting to jump upon their own shadows: I am attempting to trap an essentially untrappable form of knowledge. After the initial discomfort and frustration that this inconclusive conclusion elicits, however, I have found that there is much to gained, as a researcher in general and as a motherhood researcher in particular, in looking instead at uncertainty as a valuable critical lens.” Feminism desperately needs this kind of approach, which is a fitting response to the complexity of actual people and the world.

Purchase Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood from McNally Robinson

in-love-with-artI remember reading In Love With Art by Jeet Heer on one of the first few days this spring when it was warm enough outside to walk and read without mittens, or it’s possible that it wasn’t actually that warm, but I was just enjoying the book so much. Francoise Mouly is a fascinating biographical subject, and I’d never heard of her, but unbeknownst to me, I’d seen her work—she was a long-time Art Editor of The New Yorker, and she’s the founder and Editorial Director of TOON Books, whose books we’re in love with at our house. And thisbook found its way into my (cold) hands just as Harriet was started to really get into comics, so I was pleased to learn so much about comics as an art form, and also the process behind comics creation, and what is  entailed by the role of their editor. It was an excellent book, part of Coach House Books’ Exploded Views series of short books about big things, and I do love me a paperback that fits in my pocket.

Purchase In Love With Art from McNally Robinson

bookI only read The Bookshop That Floated Away last week, but I was so taken by Sarah Henshaw’s book, and I think that I’ll continue to be as much. We’re planning at trip to the UK in the spring, and top of my list of things to do there is tracking down the book barge. It’s the ideal book for anyone who ever thought that opening a book on a boat sounded like a perfectly sensible idea, and I loved its unabashed oddness, the absurd adventure, and all the references to books and reading, and also to Victoria Sponge Cake.

Purchase The Bookshop That Floated Away

they-left-us-everythingPlum Johnson’s They Left Us Everything was the most terrific memoir, ostensibly the story of a woman cleaning out her parents’ house after their deaths, but it’s also a record of a wonderful family history, about the curious shape and contents of archives and the stories they tell, about caring for aging parents, coming to terms with the past, the complexities of daughterhood and motherhood, and understanding our parents as people in their own right. I’m so pleased that it’s been nominated for the 2015 Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction.

Purchase They Left Us Everything from McNally Robinson

Penelope_Fitzgerald_A_LifeHermione Lee’s biography, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, was the first book I finished in 2014, and it was how I spent my holidays—so so delightful. And anti-social. Biographers don’t come much better than Lee, and lives are rarely more interesting than Penelope Fitzgerald’s—though hers did pose a challenge for the biographer considering that all her early papers were lost when her houseboat sunk on the Thames during the 1960s (where she was living in abject poverty, barely supporting her three children. She went on to publisher her first book at age 60, won the Booker Prize at 7o). Fitzgerald’s novels had always seemed obscure to me, but their author’s life story has cast them in a new light (and I am excited for the new editions with covers by Julie Morstad).

Purchase Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life from McNally Robinson

adult-onsetAnd oh! Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald, the book that inspired me to write over 1300 words in response. I love how this book has been everything to everybody—I read the review that said it was about anxiety, the one that said it was about being queer, and to me it was all about motherhood. What a fascinating book that can be read through so many different lenses. I also am intrigued by the weird and wonderful ways Adult Onset flirts with genre, oh so subtly. It’s a book about parallel lives and parallel universes, ordinary city sidewalks rendered fantastic.

Purchase Adult Onset by McNally Robinson

thunderstruckSpeaking of sidewalks, I still remember walking up Bay Street toward the subway in August reading Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken, a hardback no-less. I was hooked from the first delicious sentence: “Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees.”  I loved this book, and its stories: “Many of them are about grief, about the peculiarity of details during the times in life in which we’re grief-struck, or stricken at all. They’re about human connection in surprising places, about misunderstandings in which the connection is missed. Their about the things that get lost and what we choose to preserve. They’re funny even with the sadness, a many sided shape. And they’re absolutely extraordinary.”

Purchase Thunderstruck from McNally Robinson

all-saintsLast summer I reviewed All Saints by KD Miller in The Globe and Mail. “Most of [Miller’s characters] are searching for meaning; Miller – in language that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but bends to suit her purposes – uses the small moments in life to illuminate big questions. Where did the story start? What is destiny? Is there an order to the universe, to a life? But a life, we learn, is only a piece of the puzzle, meaning and wholeness only emerging when separate lives connect. Crucially and compellingly, such connections are mysterious – Miller shows how we are all figments of one and other’s imaginations.”

Purchase All Saints from McNally Robinson

know-the-nightFor a few weeks in February, I was deep into the memoir Know the Night by Maria Mutch, which I reviewed for The National Post,  a book I read twice and puzzled through with so many notes, and figured out like a complicated math problem—so utterly engaging. All to the soundtrack of “Mercy Mercy Mercy” by Cannonball Adderley. “Know the Night, a memoir about a boy who doesn’t speak, is in love with language. Mutch’s prose is electric (when describing her relationship with her partner, she writes of “that ingredient vital for love, which can best be described, I think, as conspiracy” — my favourite line in the book) but the book is more concerned with words than the stories they tell. Mutch probes the connections between words and what they symbolize, as well as other connections for which words are a conduit.”

Purchase Know the Night from McNally Robinson

sanaaqAnother winter book I read around the same time was Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk. Nappaaluk had been asked to write down some Inuktitut phrases for a missionary to learn, but didn’t stop at simple grammar exercises and went on invent a whole cast of characters and create the first Inuit novel. “The narrative skirts omniscience in a way that seems curious to the reader who is accustomed to the English novel. There is a matter-of-factness to the telling, perhaps related to its origins—it was written in a shorthand that can be written as quickly as it is spoken, and so this written novel has an oral nature. There is also a simplicity to its delivery that only comes across as such because a whole layer of the narrative is inaccessible to me as a reader (and I think that this is the challenge for this reader that Martin was writing about in her review). Saladin d’Anglure’s foreword makes clear that the apparent simplicity of Nappaaluk’s novel is undermined by the Inuit symbols and stories referenced, as well as details of Nappaaluk’s own life and members of her community. In short, this is only a straightforward story because I’m not smart enough to know it isn’t otherwise.”

Purchase Sanaaq from McNally Robinson

boy-snow-birdHelen Oyeyemi’s Boy Snow Bird was one of my vacation reads this summer, and I was enthralled by its twists and turns, and by how the British-born Oyeyemi channels American-ness in this novel. That it was based on a fairy tale might have had me supposing a certain shallowness to the narrative, but Oyeyemi drills down deep to show why an archetypal story like Snow White has such cultural resonance, and then introduces race as a theme to add a whole new layer of relevance. This novel was smart, sharp and gorgeous.

Purchase Boy, Snow, Bird from McNally Robinson

a-tale-for-the-time-beingI also adored Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which I read in April. Late to the party (because it had already been internationally celebrated by then) I read it for own pleasure, and realized it deserved all the hype. At heart, this is a novel about quantum physics, which shouldn’t scare you off. It’s a weird, wonderful story about the whole wide world, which is as terrible as it is beautiful, and it’s brilliant how Ozeki manages to knit it all together.

Purchase A Tale for the Time Being from McNally Robinson

chez-larabeI haven’t talked much here about Chez L’Arabe by Mireille Silcoff, which I read this fall, but I loved it and my review is forthcoming in Canadian Notes & Queries. From my review: One can read Silcoff’s collection as a catalogue of beautiful well-made objects…Which is not to say that the stories lack depth, that they skim along their lush or shiny surfaces, but instead the things themselves are invested with meaning, each one “permeated with some little, important, imported world of its own.” “Materialist” is hurled as a slur more than once but, as a character replies (she of the sugar sifter), “I don’t see why anything should be considered less meaningful just because it’s concrete.””

Purchase Chez L’Arabe from McNally Robinson

view-from-the-laneDeborah-Anne Tunney’s The View From the Lane was another recent read, but one I’ve not been able to shake off yet.  It was a promising first book more than a perfect one, but a huge part of its promise is the atmosphere that Tunney creates. It reminded me of Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories in all the best ways. The night I finished this book, I stayed up late searching for the streets she writes about on Google Maps—I was left with such a sense of the place, and I wanted to see it for myself.

Purchase The View from the Lane by Deborah-Anne Tunney

MyRealChildren_Jo-WaltonAnd finally, My Real Children by Jo Walton, a book I loved so very much and have given as a gift at least three times since I read it (and I replaced my ARC with a hardcover). Lots to say about this one—it connects interestingly with Lisa Bird-Wilson’s Just Pretending in its notion of real children (those we give birth to) as opposed to those who are miscarried or adopted and the “unrealness” that pervades these relationships through semantics. And with Ann-Marie MacDonald’s book, which also explores queer relationships and parallel lives. I reread this book for my book club and realized that while Walton’s strength is not as a prose stylist—there are a few lines in the book that are a bit painful to encounter—she has performed something remarkable in her creation of Patricia Cowan and her lives, so much so that this book reminded be of Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald biography (Fitzgerald and Walton’s Patricia are near contemporaries). I’m going to be returning to this book again and again for the enthralling nature of its story, for its genre blurring and alternate histories, and for what Walton has to say about the shape and the details of an ordinary woman’s life.

Purchase My Real Children from McNally Robinson

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