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March 20, 2016

Becoming Lin, by Tricia Dower

becoming-linAlthough coming-of-age books tend to feature adolescent protagonists, Tricia Dower’s novel Becoming Lin not only demonstrates that such “becomings” can occur elsewhere (and even more than once) in a lifetime, but also represents an arrival for the author herself. For this book, Dower’s third—after the acclaimed 2008 story collection Silent Girl, which put feminist spins on Shakespearean narratives; and the 2012 novel Stony River with its sinfully delicious Peyton Place bent—is absolutely her finest yet. Becoming Lin is the kind of book that you’re sorry when it’s finished, bereft to leave behind a world that has held you so fast.

It’s a novel about the 1960s, about idealism and reality, about the narrow confines of a wife’s identity and that of a mother. Familiar themes, all of these if you’ve read books like Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellers or watched Mad Men, but themes made fresh with the nuances of the novel’s point of view, the carefulness with which these ideas are examined. In Becoming Lin, the prose is mostly inconspicuous, but what grips the reader is the evolution of Lin’s consciousness, and the complexity that arises from the absence of polarities—unusual for a history of a decade so constructed of extremes.

Linda Wise is sheltered, overprotected by her parents in their sleepy New Jersey town, particularly since her sexual assault years before (which occurred in the novel, Stony River). At the age of 23, she sees an opportunity for herself when she meets the charismatic Ron Brunson, a guest pastor at her family’s church one summer. Ron preaches social justice, and shares stories of his experiences on Freedom Rides, for which he spent time in jail. Ron’s values seem to accord with Linda’s own, but with the addition of the possibility of actual action, something she’s found hard-to-come-by in her hometown, studying at a women’s college toward a social work qualification. The two end up sitting side-by-side at a church dinner, and Dower marvellously constructs the dialogue that brings them even closer. Ron mentions to their table that his chances of getting a church of his own are lessened without a wife, who’s expected to take on (unpaid) roles in the congregation—among them counsellor or administrator-typist. Someone mentions he should put a wife-wanted ad in the newspaper, and Linda’s not quite listening to this.

“I type. I can do the bulletins,” she volunteers, with characteristic bad timing, in essence responding to the want-ad, and while the moment is awkward, Ron Brunson is game.

After a whirlwind courtship, they are married, and Linda (who is happy to have her new husband truncate her name to the more sophisticated-sounding “Lin”) follows Ron to his congregation far across the country to rural Minnesota, where she soon finds herself playing the careful and conservative role of the minister’s wife—not quite what she’d signed up for. Typing bulletins is not even the half of it. Most troublingly though is her husband’s reticence to voice his opposition to the Vietnam War, a point of view that could put his job at risk. And here is where a lesser novel would have irrevocably split the couple, wife going off to radical pursuits and leaving her dull husband behind, but instead Dower has Lin give Ron the courage to realize that opposing the war is his duty as a minister and as a Christian. Theirs is a true partnership, however much a complicated one.

And it is complicated, this we know from the outset, as chapters for the first half of Becoming Lin alternate between two timelines, one of the newlyweds negotiating their new life together, and the other of Lin half a decade later, now a mother to a young son with whom she is moving to the nearby city of Hopkins to begin a new life for herself. A temporary experiment, this is meant to be, though the reader is not made privy to the details at the outset—we know that she and Ron are still married, it’s his name on her apartment lease, that he takes for granted she’ll return home to a year from then. And the story here is familiar to me as well, because I grew up watching Three’s Company and One Day at the Time on television—sitcom scenes of single moms and apartment complex social dynamics. Though the problems Lin is grappling with here—and so too are the other single mom friends she encounters—are not so easily resolved in neat half hour episodes. It’s a brave new world of women’s lib, access to abortion, and career gals, though the notions of justice that have followed Lin throughout her life continue—she’s working for a company in which promotion is not accessible to women employees; her friends contend with deadbeat dads who don’t support their families, she gets groped on busses and feels somewhat unsafe just walking around in her own life.

In the intervening years, Lin and Ron had been wrapped up in the anti-war movement, stirring up resistance from their neighbours and gaining the unfortunate attention of the FBI. Her faith in God and religion has wavered, her husband’s remaining steadfast, and this has become a great divide between them. Their year apart then is an attempt to bridge that space, Ron wishing her to take the freedom and responsibility she longs for, and again, it’s a strength of the novel that he remains (for the most part) a sympathetic character, their connection a true one, albeit one with weak spots and failings. And that the religious character (he’s such a square, man!) does not become the bad guy, that he too is on the side of social justice, but his position is complicated too, just like life is.

In essence, Lin has two becomings in this story, and it’s important to note that one is not necessarily the undoing of the other. That progress is a process, and so is it for feminism, coming in waves as it does, some change rolling back on other kinds, and there is contradiction and disagreement, which might look like disarray from a distance, but it’s a becoming, indeed.

April 18, 2019

Troubling a Star, by Madeleine L’Engle

There are only two copies of Madeleine L’Engle’s Troubling a Star in the entire Toronto Public Library system, which made me wonder. The final book in the Austin series, published in 1994 which was 34 years after the series after the series debuted. It begins with Vicky Austin stranded on an iceberg in Antarctica…my hopes weren’t high. And so it was shocking that this was the book of all of them in the series that grabbed me and held me plot-wise, and that I loved it just as much as the other four.

Because while the idea of someone trapped on an iceberg didn’t intrigue me so much narrative-wise, I was all over a plot-driven novel of intrigued concerned with the fictional South American country of Vespugia. Vespugia? I’d not encountered Vespugia within the pages of a book since A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which is my favourite L’Engle novel and the one I’ve read over and over again. In that book, the country is on the brink of nuclear war, and Charles Wallace Murry is called upon to change the past in order to divert it with the help of a unicorn—which he does. By Troubling a Star, however, the country’s benevolent leader has been overthrown and replaced by a dictator, which has changed everything, and suddenly the country is unsafe, police and soldiers everywhere carrying big guns. Like all the books in the series, current events are the backdrop to the story—in 1994 with the fall of the USSR, L’Engle is aware of the precariousness of the new world order (possibly more than many others were at the time) and it makes sense that someone with her understanding of the universe would be able to see the dangers of the vacuum the emerges at the end of the Cold War (“Darkness was, and darkness was good. As was light. Light and darkness dancing together, born together, born of each other, neither preceding, neither following, both fully being in joyful rhythm,” from …Planet).

The story begins with Vicky becoming acquainted with her friend Adam Eddington’s great-Aunt Serena who, with grace and wisdom, fills a void in her life after the recent death of her beloved Grandfather. The family are back in their rural home after their year in New York and the summer of A Ring of Endless Light, and it’s an in-between year for Vicky, who is finishing her final year of high school and is still unsure of her plans for the future. So when Aunt Serena bestows upon Vicky the opportunity to join Adam (a student of marine biology) in Antarctica, she is wild about the idea. Except then she starts getting threatening notes in her locker warning her against the journey, which is very strange, and part of the reason she elects to ignore them.

But things get stranger fast, particularly when she arrives in Vespugia (because the journey to Antarctica is never direct) and begins to suspect that someone has gone through her suitcase, and Adam’s letters from the research station suddenly become cryptic and weird. Everybody travelling with her group begins to look suspicious, and Vicky is no longer sure if there is anyone to trust. Further, chapter begins with a few paragraphs of Vicky stranded on the ice berg, which is great because a) it means not having to read whole chapters about someone stranded on an ice berg and and b) that things for Vicky go so desperately wrong ups the tension and made me want to keep reading to find out how it happened.

A terrible revelation as I was reading this book: it’s uncanny, I’ve said with every one, how each of these novels so imbued with ominous tones of the late 20th century feels so timely now. But maybe it’s less uncanny than just really awful, that nuclear threats, authoritarianism, the omnipresence of dogma, violence and unrest, and chance of mass annihilations all feel so much of this moment: what a time to be alive. Environmental destruction is at the forefront at this book, the hole in the Ozone layer and everything. It anticipates global warming and how important the polar regions are and what bearing they will have on our climate future. And also the brutality and cruelties of nature, and that human beings are very much a part of that. “People who lived, on the surface, ordinary, decent lives also, without any sense of evil, fed other human beings into gas chambers.” In Vespugia, they come across ancient pyramids built by civilizations that were destroyed by colonization. Everything is connected, and nothing about the project of humanity can afford to be taken for granted.

I will admit that I didn’t completely pay attention to the details of the plot here, and some of it’s more than a bit absurd—but not as absurd as The Young Unicorns, which was thoroughly bonkers, so there’s the new standard. I think it’s amazing that this series, which is set in an approximately four year period, was written over 34 years, and manages to encompass massive global events and changes during that time. I know this is supposed to be L’Engle’s series that is doing more conventional things with time (as opposed to Wrinkle…) but it still blows my mind. Plus the ways that this series does (and also doesn’t) map onto the Time Quintet is mind-boggling. Is it the same universe? Are there infinite universes? And what does it mean that we ask these questions about a book that is fiction?

I am going to read The Arm of the Starfish next (which takes place just before A Ring of Endless Light) and then the books in the Polly O’Keefe series, which feature many of the characters I’ve encountered already in the Austin book—and I’m excited about that. The final book in that series is An Acceptable Time, which was published in 1989, which I tried to read years ago with the Wrinkle in Times series, but I see how I might not have appreciated it then. Perhaps I was always meant to wait until I was 40 and had done all the appropriate background reading first.

June 28, 2018

A moratorium on calling out pro-life campaigners for hypocrisy…

I would like to ask for a moratorium on calling out pro-life campaigners for hypocrisy. For their fervour at protecting the unborn all the while shrugging as actual human beings are deprived of health insurance, or for freaking out about the death of a zygote all the while living breathing babies are languishing in prisons after being removed from their parents at the Mexican border. For calling themselves “pro-life” even while they’re aware that all research shows that banning safe and legal abortion doesn’t lead to fewer abortions, but it leads to more women dying. These points being made as though these people aren’t aware of the flaws in their logic, as though lack of logic is the problem. As though the crime here is inconsistency, instead of a heartless disregard for women’s bodies and lives.

It occurred to me last week after reading this piece that there is actually no disconnect between wanting to deprive a woman access to reproductive health and leaving a migrant child in a cage at a Walmart-turned-Detention Camp. Both stances are about dehumanization, about a readiness to make somebody into “the other,” about a comfort with state control of bodies and freedom that results from a lack of imagination, from a certainty that “the other” is never going to be you.

(There is a difference between a personal discomfort with and distaste for abortion and actively campaigning for its restrictions and ultimate abolishment. Finding abortion abhorrent but understanding the role it plays in healthcare and in so many women’s lives is the definition of humane. On the other hand, becoming one of those anti-choice activists [who are so often young because most people who are grown up understand that life and the world is complicated] playing right into the hands of powerful and well-funded right-wing forces which are underwriting the entire movement in the first place is abjectly cruel, and ignorant, and, if history is any indication, is only going to make the world a more terrible place to live.)

I wrote this 18 months ago: In prioritizing the rights of a fetus you must necessarily steamroll over the bodies and lives of actual womenAnd this is the problem with being pro-life, not that you’ve failed a thought experiment or a rhetorical exercise, but that you’re comfortable with women’s bodies being made disposable. It says a lot.

I didn’t use to talk about abortion all the time. I didn’t used to have the word “FEMINIST” three times in my Twitter bio. When I had an abortion sixteen years ago, it never occurred to me not to take my access to this service for granted. That women were people deserving of equal rights, which included the right to control what happens to their bodies, was as obvious to me as, well, the fact that Black lives matter. I used to think that none of these points of view was remotely political, and instead just matter of being a person in the world, and not even a particularly decent one.

But the reason why I’m writing yet another post about abortion is because every day seems to give me another reason for not shutting up. Because there is an active movement to clamp down on these rights that years ago I was naive and lucky enough to think I could take for granted. It’s not even a conspiracy theory, guys, because they’ll tell you. They’re even proud of it, and they’re celebrating every time a person who doesn’t know any better goes out and elects a right-wing populist because of concerns about provincial debt.

Abortion is the tip of the iceberg. It’s never been about fetuses—don’t you know that? It’s about controlling women, and limiting their freedom to make choices about their bodies and their lives. It’s the same impulse that tears a baby from her mother, and takes her away on a bus to a migrant camp. And I hope you will join me in resisting it at every single step.

March 11, 2016

Going for a Sea Bath, by Andrée Poulin and Anne-Claire Delisle

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After a week sitting beside the ocean, it was a pleasure to return home to brand new book Going For a Sea Bath, by Andrée Poulin and Anne-Claire Delisle, and translated from French by Erin Woods. Although I’ll admit to being initially a bit wary of the book—as an avid reader of classic Canadian bath-lit, I’d noted a resemblance in substance and style to Eugenie Fernandes’ Waves in the Bathtub. But I was happy to find out that the resemblance is only skin deep, and while both titles make for excellent companion readers, Going for a Sea Bath is something all its own.

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In terms of structure, pacing and general silliness, Going for a Sea Bath recalls early-Munsch. It’s the story of a little girl called Leanne who finds bath time too boring, and so her doting father runs down to the sea to find her creatures to liven up the tub. Beginning with a turtle, and moving onto eels, and anemones, urchins and clownfish, with eventually the marine menagerie becoming too much to handle—leading to the inevitable addition of octopi.

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And by this point things are absolutely overflowing, but Leanne’s dad is not deterred. The page above, for obvious reasons (i.e. an octopus on the toilet, a hermit crab with toilet paper!—these perfect details in the illustrations feature throughout) is a favourite in our house, the point at which everything is totally out of control, and Leanne’s dad proposes they forego the bath altogether and jump into the sea, which is the most fun bath of all.

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June 13, 2013

Hobbling Out in the World

IMG_20130613_162020We made it to the Farmers Market yesterday, my first outing since coming home from the hospital. I had to hobble there while clutching my incision, and for the first time ever, we had to implore our slowpoke daughter not to walk so fast, but we made it and it was lovely to be in the world, even if the soundtrack was a bagpiper dueting with steel drummer on a version of Jamaica Farewell. We also came home with strawberries and raspberries, so it was definitely worth the trek. I’ve elected to spend today in bed though, partly because I don’t want to overdo it, and also because Iris was up most of the night, scarcely sleeping for more than an hour at a time.

It still remains true how much easier this experience of having a newborn baby has been. Part of this is because we skipped the stage where Baby loses 11% of her body weight and breastfeeding is as difficult as it is constant. Iris had surpassed her birth weight as of Monday and she’s doing very well, bouts of misery aside (which can be attributed to diagnosis:Baby). Partly because we knew what to expect in terms of the all-night fussiness and the problems which have no solutions. (This time I have not once paged the midwife because the baby refuses to go to sleep.) I am not resisting having Iris in bed with us when required, which was a huge hurdle before–everyone had warned that it was the slippery slope to the end of life as we know it, but now I know that it isn’t. I have not googled anything newborn-related to seek advice from uninformed, hysterical women who are as desperate as I am, and as I result, I do not feel so desperate. The holy trinity of a queen-sized bed, my smart-phone in the wee hours and the placenta pills continue to bolster us. My husband who is not going back to work anytime soon. All these things are making these days quite different than the last time we went through them. Also the knowledge that these are probably the last time we’ll go through them. It seems to me that having a second baby is like getting a tattoo after all.

When we went out into the world yesterday, I was not surprised to discover it was still there. It doesn’t seem surprising that life has gone on normally while our family has been changed forever. Iris’s arrival has not so shaken the foundation of our existence as Harriet’s did, mostly because we were parents already and have not had to weather the explosion of becoming so, and also because Harriet herself ties us to the world, to the pattern of ordinary days. Stuart gets up in the morning and takes her to school, and she comes home with dispatches from the world beyond the four walls of my room. She demands meals and bedtime, stories read, games played. “Pay the most attention to me,” she demands, ever comfortable with voicing her needs. And so we have not been able to be sucked into that funnel cloud of newborn mania, crazed internet searches, middle of the night despair, logs of inputs and outputs. Downstairs we have the Hospital for Sick Children Baby Care book, and if you open it you will find the marginalia of a madwoman. There is a chapter on sleep habits, and I went through it with a pen underlining every single bit of text. Obviously, the notes were unhelpful, and I’ve not opened that book in quite some time.

Which is not to say that I didn’t cry this morning after being up all night when the bad baby still wouldn’t settle. But I had a nap and then I felt better, and I’m looking forward to walking a little bit farther tomorrow.

September 20, 2010

The Sky is Falling by Caroline Adderson

Caroline Adderson’s wonderful The Sky is Falling will not be outsmarted. The novel, in which Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist meets the short stories of Chekhov, is narrated by Jane Z., who opens the paper one morning to find a face she hasn’t seen in twenty years. The face belongs to Sonia, once Jane’s roommate, once a friend and possibly something more than that, and also a co-member of a movement campaigning for nuclear disarmament in the early 1980s. Sonia has just been freed from prison, after serving a twenty year sentence for a crime that will be the novel’s climax. The narrative flips back and forth between 1984 and 2004, as Jane explains what happened to her and her friends, and how her past connects with the very different life she lives now.

This is a novel deftly composed of fragments and allusions, whose construction is remarkably assured for this, and yet there are these moments throughout where something slips– a certain detail, an incongruency, we know one thing and then we’re told another–, and these moments take us outside the story for a moment. Poor editing, we can chalk it up to, and avid readers are encountering this kind of thing more and more these days.

And then. And then.

As I said already, Caroline Adderson’s novel will not be outsmarted, there are no slips. How Pascal was said to be a friend of Dieter’s, but Dieter doesn’t even appear to know him, and it’s not Adderson who’s slipped up here, but Jane, and her remarkably limited, unfiltered perspective. Or rather, a perspective that’s filtered solely through a lens of Chekhov stories and the Russian language she’s studying in her second year at UBC, and the stories are more real to her than her life is. She’s more of an agent in these stories, which she manipulates in her essays to suit her own political purposes, than she is in her own life where she is always on the periphery. She reads her life rather than lives it, and her readings are very often wrong.

Jane is the daughter of a Polish immigrant, she’s a foreigner in Vancouver where she has come from Edmonton for university. After a year of living three buses away from the campus with her eccentric aunt, she wins a spot in a shared house because she’s viewed as unthreatening enough to not steal somebody’s boyfriend. Here, she meets Sonia and the other housemates, all of whom have their own reasons for political action (and Adderson should be commended for her treatment of this ensemble cast). For Sonia, it’s a genuine desire to save the world (or perhaps to be the saver of the world, more particularly), and Adderson does a fine job of illustrating the heightened state of Cold War politics in 1984, with Star Wars, the Doomsday Clock, a rubber Ronald Reagan mask hanging by its eye-hole from a nail in the wall, and the Korean airliner that had been shot down by the Soviets the autumn before. To the insular group feeding off one another, all these were signs that the end was nigh, and to Jane, even more insulated within that insular group, it seemed her eyes were opening to reality for the very first time.

Twenty years away from all that, Jane is able to understand her own naivete– not necessarily that the end wasn’t nigh, but that she had a chance of changing any of it. She is just as powerless now as mother to a teenage boy who she fears is slipping away from her– it’s not his big leather boots she minds, or the piercings in his face, or his sullen friends, but that he’s becoming a stranger to her. Though Jane’s sympathy for teenagedom is admirable– Adderson has depicted the trappings of adolescence in a realistic way that would make Tabatha Southy proud. When Jane’s son finally seems interested in his mother, it’s only in her own surprising past, and Jane questions the ethics of using the allure of her past mistakes to connect with her son again. To what ends will he end up using her story?

The Sky is Falling is a great, smart and engaging novel that will appeal to Chekhov lovers, and make Chekhov seem appealing to the unconverted. Adderson’s allusions do not burden the story, but they serve to illustrate Jane’s lack of worldliness, and invest the whole novel with rich under-layers of meaning. The past and present strands of the story come together in a marvelously clever ending that both promises a brighter future, and also acknowledges that the thing about the future is that it’s always just escaping one’s grasp.

January 1, 2010

THE LINEUP (Canada Reads 2010: Independently)

My gang of celebity panelists and their excellent picks below, in alphabetical order by panelist. I am very excited about every single one of these books, and I hope my excitement gets a little contagious.

The Champion: Steven W. Beattie

Steven W. Beattie is review editor at Quill & Quire, and administrator of the literary site That Shakespearean Rag.

The Book: Moody Food, by Ray Robertson

Rock and roll novels are difficult to pull off. It’s hard to capture on the page the unkempt spirit of the music – its energy, its anarchy, its ethereal, emotional immediacy. Which makes Moody Food, an extended booze- and drug-fuelled odyssey into Toronto’s Yorkville (and beyond) in the 1960s, a fairly stunning achievement. The novel tells the story of Bill Hansen, an employee at the Making Waves used bookstore, who meets an itinerant musician named Thomas Graham, an American transplant decked out in a “white cowboy boots and a red silk shirt, all topped off with a white jacket covered with a green sequined pot plant, a couple of sparkling acid cubes, and a pair of woman’s breasts.” Graham (a figure loosely based on the real-life ’60s rocker Gram Parsons) enlists Bill and his girlfriend, Christine, to join him on his idealistic quest to create what he calls “Interstellar North American Music.”

First published in 2003, the novel is many things: a modern retelling of The Great Gatsby; a vividly realized portrait of Yorkville in the 1960s; and a metaphor for the disillusionment of the generation that came of age pursuing a heady mix of peace, love, and marijuana smoke. Robertson has said, “I believe that no matter what artistic pursuits you have, you want to be regarded like a rock star.” Ambitious and ultimately highly moving, Moody Food is that rarest of all beasts: a great rock and roll novel.

The Champion: Rona Maynard

The first book that captured Rona Maynard’s imagination was I Can Fly by Margaret Wise Brown. The most recent was The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. In between, she has edited Chatelaine, written the memoir My Mother’s Daughter and contributed to the anthology Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother. She speaks across the country on the life-changing lessons she’s learned from difficult people, and blogs at ronamaynard.com. She believes that no one is ever too old to be enchanted by timeless words read aloud.

The Book: How Happy to Be by Katrina Onstad

Ever since Katrina Onstad’s debut novel How Happy to Be kept me immersed throughout a cross-country flight in economy class, I’ve been urging friends to discover this neglected millennial spin on the mother of all stories, coming of age. Not that the jacket copy mentions that term. The adjectives scream modernity—hip, ironic, sardonic, sassy—as if the publisher doesn’t trust the Jaded Generation to give a snarky tweet for a young woman’s fumbling and belated struggle to start living like a grownup instead of a resentful kid.

Onstad’s journalist heroine, Maxime, is on the face of it a princess of irony—a pop culture maven with a perpetual hangover and an unsparing eye for the foibles of stars whose self-important pronouncements sell The Daily, “a paper so right that Hitler would have made the commute.” About to turn 35 and still partying like a commitment-phobe at frosh week, Max embodies the studied brittleness of a culture in flight from reflection and responsibility. She’s way too smart not to know it. A frequent guest on TV roundtables about the manufactured topic du jour, she sums up her requests this way: “Swing music is back, could you take an anti-swing stance? What do you think of Gap greeters? Is sex the new virginity? Virginity the new modesty?”

A former film critic for The National Post (speaking of right-wing papers), Onstad limns Max’s workaday world with deft comic flourishes that capture the navel-gazing nuttiness that’s now being packaged as news by aging hipsters in thrall to trivia. But there’s a lot more at work here than spot-on satire. Max’s studied cynicism conceals the fear and bone-deep loneliness of the still-unparented child she is at heart—daughter of a mother who died way too young and a feckless hippy father in constant retreat from his own grief. Among the many rewards of this incisive novel is the unsparing light it shines on baby boomers, whose own brand of narcissism paved the way for their children’s obsession with glossy nothings.

Max’s eloquently portrayed frustration with her trendy pastiche of a life makes her a poignant and compelling character. She knows exactly what she doesn’t want—the same old same old. But what can she embrace with her whole being? And does she dare take the risk? That’s the unspoken question posed by the return of an old boyfriend who would never fit in at a celebrity press conference. Max’s triumph—and Onstad’s—is that she makes the leap, and you root for her all the way. The best stories never do go out of style.

The
Champion: Melanie Owen

Melanie Owen is a writer, editor and social media consultant living in Calgary, Alberta. Recently most of her days are spent chasing after her toddler daughter and drinking too much tea but she does manage to get some reading and writing done every day. She has an unhealthy obsession with collecting the New Canadian Library paperbacks that were published in late 1960s/early 1970s in an array of garish colours – and has since started a blog about reading her way through them: www.roughingitinthebooks.com

Melanie can also be found at www.meli-mello.com

The Book: Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso

I told myself I wasn’t going to pick a New Canadian Library book for this but, lets be honest, what else have I been reading these days? Besides, I keep buying this book for people so obviously I love it and feel that if called upon to defend it I would be able to do so. I’ll be honest – this isn’t a happy book (no great NCL books are in my opinion) but it is good. I find that most people haven’t heard about this book or Martha Ostenso and they both deserve a lot more recognition. Published in 1925 this one takes into question the prudish morality of the day and is very much steeped in what was considered the Canadian realist literary attitude. There is a lot of – what I like to call – “nature going on”, meaning: talking about nature/weather in a metaphorical sense – no Can Lit classic could be without that. But it also seems to me that is must have been interesting time for women to write say what they wanted to say without being shunned too much. Lind Archer, the lead character, is definitely an independent woman trying to hold on to some of her independence while still living acceptably in the small community around her. Apparently Ostenso wrote the novel in six weeks for a novel writing contest and it is said that she wrote it with her married English Professor lover – who later left his family to be with her – and so maybe she wasn’t so interested in what the morality of the day was? Either way, it is a fantastic read and will stick in your mind for a long time.

The Champion: Patricia Storms

Patricia Storms is an award-winning cartoonist, as well as an illustrator and author of picture books and humorous gift books. She was the artist for the 2008 TD Summer Reading Club, and recently traveled to Nunavut as an author/illustrator for the 2009 TD Canadian Children’s Book Week. Her newest picture book, ‘The Pirate and the Penguin’, was published September 2009 by Owlkids Books. “Wonderfully expressive faces, hyperbolic cartoons and the occasional use of speech bubbles combine to make the illustrations both quirky and fun”, writes Kirkus Reviews. Patricia lives and creates in Toronto, with her husband Guy and two fat cats.

The Book: Hair Hat by Carrie Snyder:

Perhaps it’s unfair to pit a collection of short stories against a list of novels, but I couldn’t help myself – I am so smitten with Carrie Snyder’s Hair Hat, it simply had to be my ‘Canada Reads 2010: Independently’ pick. The eleven stories in Snyder’s debut collection are charming, quirky, mysterious, and Snyder’s wry prose is sharp and spare. The teenager describing the adults who surround her at a summer barbeque: I hated them all, exquisitely. Or the young girl agonizing over her humiliation: I knew what my face looked like at that moment, the mouth in a stupid O, and I wished I could undo it and throw that face away. Tales of seemingly ordinary lives, subtly revealed to be discomforting and dark, are all delicately linked by a strange, mysterious man whose hair resembles a hat. People in these stories have secrets, are unhappy, unsettled, and it is the presence of the Hair Hat Man, like the lone stranger in a small Western town, who wakes them from their clouded slumber. In the story ‘Comfort’ the woman who finds the Hair Hat Man at her front door thinks to herself, “His presence, his hair hat, were uncalled for, an accident, a misfortune, a blemish on an otherwise clean, calculated day that should have held nothing but the ordinary reminders and warnings.” At first just a passing, quirky description, the Hair Hat Man moves closer into focus as the stories progress, until finally becoming fully formed in the second last story, ‘Missing’. Things are not always what they appear to be, people misunderstand, and are misunderstood; they lie to themselves and to others. The Hair Hat Man knows this only too well: “More people should be themselves; the world would be a different place.”

The Champion: Dan Wells

Dan Wells is a bookseller, publisher, editor, bookbinder and generally useless fellow who lives with his wife Alexis and two boys in Belle River, Ontario.

The Book: Century by Ray Smith

Ray Smith’s Century is one of the most important and neglected novels in our literature. First published in 1984 by Stoddart, it was immediately still-born, as the acquiring editor left the press and there remained no one to champion it. Books such as Century require a champion: if the Canada Reads institution – and surely it is, by now, an institution – worked, it would be books by the likes of Ray Smith, and not by already commercially successful writers such as Ann Marie MacDonald, which would get a bit of the limelight. The best thing about something like Canada Reads is the sense of discovery. But I digress…

Biblioasis re-released Century earlier this year as part of our Renditions Reprint series. Charles Foran wrote the introduction to
the novel, arguing it is among the greatest works of Canadian literature yet produced. Beyond a bit of word-of-mouth excitement on Twitter, no one but Steven Beattie over at the Shakespearian Rag took any notice at all. Beattie wrote, in part,that: “… the experience of reading Century is bracing, even 23 years after it was first published. Its pervasive sense of melancholy in the face of a fallen world may even carry greater impact in our post-9/11 society. In any event, it remains sui generis: a strange, searing work by one of our finest literary practitioners.”

Ray Smith has been at the literary forefront in this country since the 60’s, and I think it’s shameful that so few people know who he is. His Cape Breton is The Thought Control Centre of Canada, along with Sheila Watson’s Double Hook, heralded the introduction of the Canadian postmodern. His Lord Nelson’s Tavern — which we’ll re-release as part of our Ray Smith Reclamation project — raised the ante considerably. And Century blew everything open: it’s as if Musil or Walser or Mann immigrated to Canada. It’s an intensely moral, beautiful, horrifying, fearless novel. (If it is, indeed, even a novel. There are those out there who see it as a collection of stories.)

I’ll leave you with the last words of Foran’s intro: Ray Smith was, and still is, an artist of great seriousness and, I sometimes think, greater sadness still. Nearly a quarter century after its publication — that word again! — CENTURY continues to stand alone in Canadian Literature, apparently too singular, strange and unclassifiable. Out of this sad truth comes a happy one: the book remains to be discovered. Here it is.

October 4, 2008

Babylon Rolling by Amanda Boyden

“We choose New Orleans,” begins the prologue to Amanda Boyden’s second novel Babylon Rolling. “We choose to live Uptown on Orchid Street inside the big lasso of river, though we rarely look at it, churning brown, wide.” The novel’s employment in the prologue of first person plural narration suggesting already that this will be story composed of stories, of voices.

Babylon Rolling tells of a year in the lives of the residents of New Orleans’ Orchid Street, beginning from Hurricane Ivan to just before the devastation of Katrina. Such disparate characters, these neighbours, black and white (and Indian); young and old; long-time residents and newcomers; good people and people who’ve somehow found themselves in more than a spot of trouble.

Though the first-person plural narration ends with the prologue, its spirit continues in the construction of the chapters ensuing. Written in the third person, but very close and in the various singular voices of the characters, within these chapters one voice turns into another in the space of a paragraph break. No other divisions between them, here are the different voices of Orchid Street, one after another as these people go about their separate lives.

The danger of this sort of structure, of such a broad approach to a story (in terms of chronology and character) would be a tendency for glossing over substance. For these characters to be “voices” but little more, and certainly not people, for how do you fit another entire life into a novel that is already so crowded? Which might happen in the hands of a lesser writer, but it struck me soon as I was reading Babylon Rolling that something quite different was at work.

As I read the story of Ariel, the transplanted Minnesotan working overtime managing a New Orleans hotel. She is on the verge of being unfaithful to her husband, and then of course we meet her husband Ed whose own story has nothing to do with that (though of course it will come to, but not entirely). Ed who saves his elderly neighbour Roy after an accident, in which a local drug dealer is to blame and Roy’s wife is seriously injured. The drug dealer’s younger brother Daniel, aged 15, calling himself “Fearius”, and anxiously following in his brother’s footsteps. A hurricane is approaching (but no, not “that” one, not yet). Some will stay, some will go. One of the former being Philomenia whose cooking up something poison in her kitchen and whose grasp on reality is becoming more and more tenuous, though it’s pretty hard to tell.

The point being that none of these characters– like nobody ever in his or her life– is a peripheral character. Every one of them, including those who don’t get to speak so directly, able to claim a part of the prologue’s “we”. And it dawned on me as I read that Babylon Rolling isn’t actually a novel at all, but is a book of short stories all broken into pieces and put back together, a very different kind of puzzle. Which says something about the short story, I suppose, how its surprise appearance here so serves to elevate the novel. That these characters’ stories and lives run so deep, not just into each other but in and of themselves. That their stories stand for their own sakes, complementing as they rub shoulders (and they’re actual shoulders, blood and bone), and that rubbing of these shoulders can create an effect so incredibly rich.

So the structure of this novel is really quite remarkable, but even more so are the voices themselves. That Boyden can bring to life characters so different from herself and from each other as, for example, Philomenia Beauregard de Bruges (whose presence lends a touch of the Southern Gothic) and Daniel “Fearius” Harris (“But Fearius, he be patient. He learnt it. He waited to make fifteen full years of age inside juvey, waiting four months sitting in there.”) Fearius in particular a leap, a risk, that this author could imagine her way into the mind of a black fifteen year old drug dealer, but it is a leap that Boyden makes deftly. I was uneasy with Fearius’s voice at first, not for political reasons as much as grammatical ones, but I became accustomed to it soon, as much as all the others.

Boyden writes in her Acknowledgments that she started the novel in Toronto after having left New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina, which had “reduced our city, and me, to something whipped and dispossessed. I thought I might try to write a swan song for New Orleans.” The result being a song certainly, even if not so entirely swannish. Because, as her author bio notes, Boyden lives in New Orleans “still”. And the novel’s epilogue returns to that very same “we”, such collectivity a suggestion of hope amidst such destruction.

August 6, 2008

The Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper

Though at times maligned in literary realms, thrillers are remarkable for exemplifying just what books are capable of doing to us. For demonstrating the book’s incredible power, and how it is strange that we take for granted a stack of paper with printed symbols that is terrifying. Film is entirely different, I think, or at least bad movies are, which take full advantage of their ability to startle us. Whereas literature has to be more subtle. More subtle than even a good film, because writers have less at their disposal– only words. To create a mood, a grip, the twists and terror, and then to do all this, but write well also? For prose to be surprising and inspired, characters well rounded, scenes to be properly evoked, the story fresh and original, and unbearably real and unbearably awful, and all this has been Andrew Pyper’s marvelous feat in his new novel The Killing Circle.

This was a novel that kept me up very late one night, too terrified to turn off my light, and too impatient to wait until morning to see how it ended. The grip beginning with the novel’s prologue, with Patrick Rush, a single father, at a drive-in movie with his son. The son disappearing on his way back from the snack bar and, frantic with worry, Patrick looks for him admidst the maze of parked cars, in the light of the terrifying movie on the screen before him, snippets of sound audible as he rushes from car-to-car. Venturing further out into the farmer’s fields surrounding, with no sign of his son, and however urgent is all of this, Patrick is also somehow resigned: “I know who has done this,” he says. “Who has taken my son. I know its name.”

In the next chapter we’re taken back four years to when Patrick, an aspiring novelist and dissatisfied television critic, joins a creative writing circle. The circle comprising five other rather eccentric souls, and led by Conrad White– the novelist nobody has heard of–, Patrick quickly realizes there isn’t an abundance of talent among them. And yet the story by a member called Angela captures his attention. Angela, whose face “never sharpens into full focus, like an unfinished sculpture in which you can recognize the subject is human, but beyond this, taken at different points of view, it could be a representation of virtually anyone.”

Her story is a ghost story, the story of a girl haunted by “a terrible man who does terrible things”, and the story starts to get inside Patrick’s head. Or rather he plants himself inside of the story, if there is any difference between such situations. The story’s impact upon him only intensifying when a local serial killer’s crimes start taking on eerie connections to the narrative. Patrick begins suspecting a member of the circle may be responsible, sensing himself in danger, and setting himself up as a suspect as well.

The creative writing circle is an ingenious device here, in “reality” the work from such groups often blurring lines of fact and fiction (i.e. “Write what you know.”) The writers’ stories suggesting (or betraying?) odd biographical details, misconstruing perceptions, providing for inadvertent and inappropriate therapy sessions (as well as terrible fiction), and a strange misplaced intimacy. Friendship or rivalry? And no one is ever quite as they seem, sometimes you’re even hoping this is the case. An atmosphere that absolutely fosters Patrick’s Rush’s paranoia.

This blurring of fact and fiction continues throughout the book, explored by Pyper in a variety of ways, also highlighting how it is that scary stories come by their power. By being just possible enough that you’ve can’t disbelieve it, that there really might be a monster hiding under your bed. So heightened was the mood of this story, the depths of its realism, I considered the monster– I really did– and Patrick Rush’s own experience was analogous. Could there really be a shadow following him home through the alley, somebody at the window, footsteps on the stairs? He knows it sounds crazy, and yet…

This novel is functioning at levels I’ve not got a full sense of yet, meta-meta, and I am sure that a character is called “Conrad White” must be some kind of joke I just don’t have the punchline for. Also notable is the Toronto of the novel, as vivid and electrified as Maggie Helwig’s in Girls Fall Down, and as well featured as that in Katrina Onstad’s How Happy to Be. Satirizing literary and media culture, whilst on a deeper level exploring the limits and danger of imagination.

So much is also going on beyond the tension, the whodunit, the fear. Pyper’s novel an exploration of story, the nature of story and our lives as stories. Says Conrad White, “We avoid speaking of stories as stories for the same reason we avoid contemplating the inevitability of death. It can be unpleasant. It can hurt.” Patrick unwilling to admit his own story, perhaps still stunned by the death of his wife, and so in place of his story is a void of sorts. A void he fills by appropriating Angela’s story, that of “the terrible man who does terribly things.” The ramifications of this theft are manifold, and awful, becoming the motivation for whatever it was that snatched his son, leading Patrick into the darkest corners of both society and himself.

December 11, 2016

2016 Books of the Year

As always, I’ve failed in both my efforts to read everything I wanted to read in 2016 and also to keep my top ten to a number below twenty. Still, I think I’ve failed quite successfully here, and I’m really happy with how the year has read up. Thanks to the authors and readers who inspire me and make my reading life so much.

*

Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam

“I loved its humour, its prose, its quietness and detail. I loved its subtle subversions—second abortions and pregnant women with a drink. I loved the difference between the two characters’ voices, how richly the two were delineated, and that the title is tongue-in-cheek—in a Mad Men fashion, Alam’s novel takes the idea of “types” of women and a binary approach to womanhood and complicates the idea entirely to show that women can be whole, flawed, inexplicable and fully realized people whose lives and experiences are worth writing about, thinking about. Which really shouldn’t be such a revelation, and this is still a completely excellent book for those of us who already know.”

*

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett

“Bennett nicely situates the personal against the political, Nadia’s experience with anti-abortion politicking by church members (although not so avidly—these are reasonable people) and also about how one’s convictions become flexible when an unwanted pregnancy is a fact instead of an idea. She shows how a woman can choose an abortion and know it’s the right choice, but still mourn what she’s lost and wonder at the could-have-beens. That an abortion, like a lot of things that happen to people over the course of their lives, is a complicated, multi-faceted thing.”

*

Busker, by Nisha Coleman

“I kept laughing out loud, which is a mark of literary achievement. Though I also cringed—as one who has never mastered air-kisses, I recoiled at Coleman’s recounting of her first bisous and how she actually made cheek contact. She writes about being asked to play her violin in a hair salon, but how her own unruly do caused a great upset when she arrived. Or the man she met who wanted to perform songs he’d written, which turned out to be “sex songs” with lyrics like, “The horny bull wants a bouncy ride.” And she meets a lot of men, Coleman, and in the beginning, being lonely, takes them up on their invitations, until she realizes that she’s setting herself up for a lot of awkward interactions. She longs for the company of women friends as well, but these kind of relationships are harder to find. Not to mention that at the beginning of her time in Paris, Coleman hardly speaks French.”

*

Becoming Lin, by Tricia Dower

“It’s a novel about the 1960s, about idealism and reality, about the narrow confines of a wife’s identity and that of a mother. Familiar themes, all of these if you’ve read books like Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellersor watched Mad Men, but themes made fresh with the nuances of the novel’s point of view, the carefulness with which these ideas are examined. In Becoming Lin, the prose is mostly inconspicuous, but what grips the reader is the evolution of Lin’s consciousness, and the complexity that arises from the absence of polarities—unusual for a history of a decade so constructed of extremes.”

*

Experimental Film, by Gemma Files

“I spent Thanksgiving weekend—as summer turned into fall, the leaves turned into reds and oranges, as everything started to wither and die—reading Gemma Files’ Experimental Film, which was so fitting for the season. I absolutely loved it, and was not the only one to do so—the novel won the Shirley Jackson Award in the summer and the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic in September. It’s a book about horror movies, and the history of Canadian cinema, and motherhood, and parenting a child with autism, and there are ghosts and it gets creepy, and it gave me bad dreams—which I mean as a testament to the book’s power.”

*

The Trespasser, by Tana French

I’d preordered The Trespasser, French’s first book since 2014, and it seems fitting that my year of Tana French should have a new release by her within it. (I was in Barbados when I learned this new book was forthcoming. Imagine my joy: that there would be another Tana French when the books in the Waitrose bag were done!). And it was everything I’d hoped it would be—a return to tradition of the first four books, a narrator on the edge who doesn’t know how close she is, a strange and tricky murder whose solution is not immediately in sight. I love her plots, her characters, her humour, and that I learn insults like “wankstain” (which shows up in two books). I love her complicated women and men, and their aloneness, and the awkward ways her characters connect with each other. I love her prose, her twists, and her portrayal of Ireland post-boom. Can you tell that I love everything?

*

Little Labours, by Rivka Galchen

“These fragments are preoccupied with the poster for a Keanu Reeves flop; the tiresome anecdotes we tell our friends about our babies presuming they’ll be interested (and once those friends have babies, they even actually are); a mention of the woman who drowned her five children; a horrible woman whom Galchen regularly encounters in her building’s elevator who has strong feelings she must articulate about her baby’s size; on head shapes, their remarkability and otherwise; about troubling proclivities toward orange; one piece beginning, “Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions.”; about Frankenstein, Godzilla, Rumpelstiltskin, Lucille Ball, and The Tale of Genji (but not all in the same essay); about screen time, and what writers had children and who didn’t, and why writers’ children keep writing about closed office doors (and Galchen wonders why these doors are more troubling than the doors at Daddy’s work, downtown in a high rise building); about babies in art; and her complicated feelings about women’s writing and “women’s writing,” which she fascinatingly teases out.”

*

The Dancehall Years, by Joan Haggerty

“Joan Haggerty is an extraordinary writer, her prose Woolfian in its stream of consciousness, its immediacy. This is a saga sweeping four decades written in the present tense. And it’s true that when we talk about summer books, we sometimes mean that they’re a bit light in substance, but this is a different kind of summer book. It’s not difficult, and it’s got its own kind of lightness (strung together by summers as it is), but it’s not a “beach read.” Which isn’t to say it would be wonderful to read it at a beach, but still, it’s not the kind of novel that would blow away in the breeze.”

*

The Little Communist That Never Smiled, by Lola Lafon

“On the surface, Lola Lafon’s novel The Little Communist Who Never Smiled (translated from French by Nick Caistor) is a fictionalization of the life of Nadia Comaneci, but that (of course) is just a cover. What the book is really about is messaged in between the lines (or, quite literally, between the words). The Little Communist… is a book about the Cold War, the politicization of sport and womanhood, about deciphering codes and, fundamentally, this is a novel about punctuation.”

*

The Party Wall, by Catherine Leroux

“It’s always a good sign when the blank pages inside a book become riddled with notes and diagrams, as has been the case with my copy of the Governor-General’s Award/ Giller-nominated The Party Wall, by Catherine Laroux, prize-winner in its original French, translated into English by Lazer Lederhendler (Nikolski!). Not because the stories themselves in the novel are so difficult to figure out—in fact, they read beautifully with luminous prose (“Fall is approaching and the warmth of the South throbs on the horizon like a sack of gold at the foot of a rainbow”)—but because the challenge and the pleasure is discovering how all of it fits together. While the shape of most narratives is a horizontal line (with the inevitable bump for a climax), the shape of The Party Wall is multi-dimensional, arrows pointed in all four directions and connections that hold the whole thing fast.”

*

Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg

“Surprisingly, Birdie is not a heavy book, even with all the violence and tragedy. It’s as funny as it is sad, and more than that, it’s vibrant—powered by the voice of a woman who seemingly lies unconscious, which is kind of ironic, but there’s a lot going on inside Birdie’s mind, even as she’s got one half-opened eye on The Frugal Gourmet. As a character she’s rich and realized, and Lindberg never makes her a victim of her circumstances, her agency retained even in her lowest moments. Her very act of retreating into her mind, while passive from the outside, is a powerful gesture, and necessary for healing, for the possibility of a future.”

*

Double Teenage, by Joni Murphy

“It’s heavy, but it’s not. I read this book all day on Sunday, a few hours in the afternoon in my hammock. I devoured it, and loved the shape of the project—that this is a novel gesturing outwards, pointing to the world, using the world and its threads to build something new, offering structure, frameworks, where we hadn’t seen such a thing before. Daring to state that girlhood is significant, even if it’s a stage, and even if it’s a stage. I loved the poetry of Murphy’s prose, the power of her language. The power of the book full stop—it’s both the story of my life and also unlike anything I’ve ever read before.”

*

Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, by Kathy Page

“Frankie Styne is a new edition of Page’s novel, first published in 1993, and it put me in mind of my favourite Hilary Mantel novels, her first two, Every Day is Mothers Day and Vacant Possession, dark comedies about the dark edges of humanity and their successful attempts to outmaneuver meddling social workers. Page’s social worker is Annie Purvis, who we know first from the point of view of her client, Liz Meredith, who’s just been moved into a terrace house with her baby. Liz has spent her time most recently living on a railcar after becoming estranged from her family, but since her baby’s birth (compounded by the fact that he has developmental abnormalities) she’s become tangled up in “the system”. Although she diverts all attempts to get her installed with a phone (living as she does by her grandmother’s advice to “Always avoid ties that bind”), she could do with a television, but in the meantime, she contents herself by listening to conversations between the troubled couple next door and imagining a different kind of reality existing on a planet far away, that life itself is merely the plot of a cheap pulp novel she’s somehow been stuck in.”

*

I’m Thinking of Ending Things, by Iain Reid

“Clear the decks if you’re thinking about picking up this book, because you’re not going to be able to put it back down again. Don’t start reading it at night though or it’s going to be hard to fall asleep. I was intrigued by this psychological thriller, the debut novel by Iain Reid who’s previously been known for two award-winning heartwarming memoirs. Could he really pull off such a literary change of pace? But he does, and it’s breathtakingly good. Best of all, no one is going to compare this book to Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, but it’s something altogether different. It also manages to be completely creepy but actually free of gore and violence, which is an incredible literary feat. And finally, that a book can be so enthralling and disorienting at once is just incredible.”

*

Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple

“There are writers who sit down and painstakingly plan their books before they start writing, a mess of post-it notes and index cards, and one gets the feeling that Maria Semple is not one of them. The plots of her books resemble those dotted lines on maps in Saturday morning cartoons in which small children navigate space with curious and often dangerous diversions. Which is kind of a funny way to plot a book, but think of the joy you once got in running your finger along that line, and also of the momentum inherent in this kind of narrative, the briskness with which the reader is brought along for the ride. It also turns out that plot isn’t really the point is, but voice is, and Eleanor Flood’s is the kind of voice that’s hard to get out of your head.”

*

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

“For me, Smith has always been a masterful novelist whose works just kind of peter out before the end, and my explanation for that is that her stories are so excellent that the endings are always going to be a let-down and/or do we really expect her to come up with a novel like that and properly end it too? But in her fourth book, it seems she’s finally got the conclusion that comes with a gut punch, the last fifty pages or so finally bringing the pieces together, the patterns emerging. The conclusion of Swing Time is wonderful, devastating, and ambiguous in the most engaging fashion. Yes, the book is a bit bloated in the middle, but reading any of Smith’s prose is a pleasure. And all of it matters—you just don’t know how until the end.”

*

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, by Cordelia Strube

“At nearly 400 pages, the novel is long, but swiftly paced and never dull. The bleakness of its considerations are broken up with incredible humour, from the cacophony of the voices in its background to the sheer audacity of Harriet herself, her nerve, all the things she is willing to do and say. There is a humour too in the contrast between the child’s point of view and the world around her, and—in the case of Harriet’s friend, Darcy, in particular—the person she is trying to to be. The sheer naïveté of these would-be old souls. Darcy likes to go on about, “that Caitlin whore,” a friend from her old neighbourhood, and we learn about what Caitlin did to her at Guides: “I was a Sprite and she was a Pixie. That ho bag made like all the cool girls were Pixies….Then the skank fucked up my puppetry badge.””

*

The Break, by Katherena Vermette

“The family tree at the beginning of the book is useful, but the reader soon becomes acquainted with the women of this family, so it won’t be referred to throughout. Momentum is strictly forward as the pieces begin to come together, Vermette deftly moving in and out of time to create a three-dimensional feel to the narrative—we come to feel we know this story from all sides. Four generations of a family, and how tragedy trickles down with all the goodness, the former not negating the latter though. As Vermette has made clear, this is a novel about women and about survival, a story that complements but also takes issue with stories and statistics about First Nations and Metis women as victims before they’re even people proper. But her characters are people here, people with flaws and foibles, strengths and weaknesses, and it’s the strength that endures: “‘It’s okay, my girl. It’s okay.’ Her answer to everything.”’

*

We Oughta Know, by Andrea Warner

In her book, We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music, Andrea Warner articulates that whole scene, and the remarkable fact that four Canadian women were leading the charge of women in song: Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan, Shania Twain, and Alanis Morissette. These four women too are (along with Diana Krall) are the only Canadians on Canada’s best-selling artists lists, coming in above the Beatles. And even more remarkably, they all made their mark during a five year period in the mid-1990s. What was going on exactly, Warner wonders? How did they do it?

*

Shrill, by Lindy West

From Shrill: ““Everything happened in those five years after my abortion. I became myself. Not by chance, or because an abortion is some kind of mysterious, empowering feminist bloode-magick rite of passage (as many, many—too many for a movement ostensibly comprising grown-ups—anti-choices have accused me of being), but simply because it was time. A whole bunch of changes—set into motion years, even decades, back—all came together at once, like the tumblers in a lock clicking into place: my body, my work, my voice, my confidence, my power, my determination to demand a life as potent, vibrant, public, and complex as any man’s. My abortion wasn’t intrinsically significant, but it was my first big grown-up decision—the first time I asserted unequivocally, “I know the life that I want and this isn’t it”; the moment I stopped being a passenger in my own body and grabbed the rudder.”

*

The Best Kind of People, by Zoe Whittall

While the entire book is fantastic, Whittall gets full points for her spectacular ending, however, which turns the story inside out and disturbingly rips us away from the singular perspectives of characters to reflect the wider culture of rape and sexual violence against whose context the entire novel has been taking place. Which is to say that this is not just a story about a family. And then the final sentence, which will haunt you long after you’ve finally finished reading, quiet, subtle, devastating and terrible, just like the injustice that is Justice, which isn’t anything like justice at all.

*

Notes From a Feminist Killjoy, by Erin Wunker

Notes is a way of starting. Trying. Essai. If a manifesto is a red rag, then a note is a building block, a puzzle piece. The reader responds not by charging, but by saying, Yes and, or Yes but. She doesn’t respond by tearing the whole thing down.

I love the way the narrative thread of Wunker’s book makes its way with seeming effortlessness. There is nothing laboured about how a discussion of rape culture leads to the Jian Ghomeshi trial leads to women coming together leads to a chapter on friendship. (Which references The Babysitters Club. Yes, and!!) Why are so few of our formative texts about female friendship? “What is it about female friendship that inspires such insipid descriptors?” What are relationships between women often so fraught?

“Is it too hard to write your own narrative and witness another’s, simultaneously?”

*

Five Roses, by Alice Zorn

“I loved Alice Zorn’s Five Roses, a novel that’s a love letter to Montreal, its neighbourhoods, and to the magic and serendipity of city life that is inevitably born from the fact of so many characters living in close proximity. It’s a bit of a mess, it is, city life, what with different cultures, and types of people, and old traditions and new traditions, and money and poverty, home and commercial enterprise, and history and the moment, which is now, and impossible to capture anyway…because the only thing that ever stands still in the city is the force of change. Zorn’s novel, however, manages to convey all this and not be a mess, disparate narratives woven together in a way that sparks magic but is left just untidy enough to still ring true.”

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