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June 23, 2014

One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories

“I had an abortion.” This is not a confession, but instead is the phrase with which my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies” (which was published in The M Word and online this spring) has been received by readers, more than any other, or at least it seems as such from my point of view. And these readers are not confessing either, but rather are stating a fact of their lives, a fact they seem eager to share. Like me, I suppose they’ve spent a long time feeling as though abortion stories were not to be shared, and they were grateful finally to have an excuse to talk about this fact of their lives, a fact which has been perhaps sad, complicated, maybe neither, but undeniably important.

one-kind-wordIt’s not shame that keeps women from talking about their abortions, but rather fear of seeming impolite. It’s funny that in a society in which 1/3 of adult women have had abortions and most people understand the procedure to be a necessary part of women’s health, that we kowtow to the sensibility of  a minority whose vocal stance allows them to set the tone on the issue. That abortion is unseemly, dead babies, something that marks us, something which we have to hide at all costs.

All costs? The huge cost of hiding our abortion stories, of course, is that the vocal minority gets to tell us everything we know about abortions, much of which is wrong. (Increased breast cancer risks, post traumatic symptoms and regret, photos of aforementioned dead babies.) They get to influence the people who make the legislation, because the rest of us are too polite to speak up. They get to tell us everything we know about the women who have abortions too, which is that there is a type of woman this happens to and that her experiences are uniform.

With the new book, One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories, edited by Kathryn Palmateer and Martha Solomon, with a foreword by Judy Rebick, we learn that everything they told us about abortions, and the women who have them, is wrong. In striking portraits—photographs accompanied by short first-person essays—we learn that women who have had abortions are women of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. We learn than many of them are mothers. Others never wanted to be mothers, and it’s that certainty that made the decision to have an abortion quite an easy one to make. Some women look back on their abortions with mixed emotions, or sadness, grief or relief. And most of them look back and are grateful that the choice was theirs to make.

As I wrote in my essay in The M Word, reproductive freedom remains a revolutionary thing for a woman to get away with. Not because we don’t get away with it, but because when we do, we don’t talk about it. Which leaves a woman contemplating abortion or who’s had an abortion feeling that she’s so alone, that no one has ever been where she’s going and come out fine on the other side. And so that’s why a book like One Kind Word is so hugely important, representative of the real experiences of so many women. Experience as depicted by those who’ve lived it rather than those for whom abortion is an abstract moral issue—this is so significant. The book is also important because it creates a space where women who’ve had abortions can see themselves reflected, and the book provides an occasion for women to speak up and say, “This is my story too.”

One Kind Word was an online portrait gallery before it was a book, the project gaining huge momentum and inspiring so many women to be a part of it. (It also has a precedent with Jennifer Baumgardner’s Abortion and Life.) Many participants note that they felt as though they had an obligation to speak up in order to counter the abortion rhetoric which has been hijacked by patriarchal interests, to speak up for those countless other women who did not yet have the courage to represent.

This was not a book that told me anything I didn’t know already, instead confirming the fact that I exist. Which is not meant to be an honourable purpose for a book, literarily speaking, though anyone who’s ever told you this has probably been a man who sees his existence confirmed in his reflection in most everything he ever encounters.

The book’s editors write of their intention to have a copy of One Kind Word in every clinic waiting room across the country, and while this is a very good idea, I’d like to have it gracing coffee tables too. First, because it’s a book of beautiful images, good for flipping through, but also because it places our abortion stories right where they belong—firmly ensconced in the domestic ordinary of our various and remarkable lives.

One Kind Word launches tomorrow night (June 24) at Another Story Bookshop in Toronto. 


June 8, 2014

They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

they-left-us-everythingWhen Plum Johnson’s mother died, as eldest daughter, she was charged with the task of packing up the contents of the family home. This would be no easy task for anyone, but particularly not for Johnson whose parents’ lakefront house on Oakville Ontario was both enormous and stuffed with the materials of decades and decades of family life (including ancient receipts, her father’s impeccable financial records, antique cans of soup, books and more books, and a wasp’s nest). Johnson left her own home in Toronto and moved into her parents’ house, figuring the task before her would take six weeks or so, but she ended up staying for over a year, an experience she recounts in her memoir, They Left Us Everything.

In some ways, Johnson’s is the kind of story that many readers will relate to–a tale of years of demanding elder care, about the peculiar grief of losing one’s parents and the complicated and surprising emotions which accompany this, about coming to terms with who our parents were and the people we wished them to be. But in others, her family’s story is more, well, storied (so much so that her mother has an entire shelf in their home related to books published by or about members of their family). Her family’s interesting background remains peripheral in this memoir, but informs the fascinating lives of the characters who populate it. We learn about her mother’s privileged upbringing in the American South, her father’s war exploits, the early years of her parents’ marriage in Asia, and their eventual settlement in Canada (which was a compromise between their respective heritages). Not everyone has a huge house on the shores of Lake Ontario to come home to for years and years, and there is a hint of exotic to Johnson’s family’s everyday life that makes for a compelling read. Also compelling is the terrific bond between Johnson and her siblings.

Johnson does a specular job of weaving the personal with the universal here, of making her parents so present in a story about their loss, of untangling the difficult legacy of inheritance—all this stuff, but then it’s everything that’s left of her parents in the world. And so Johnson delves into it all and discovers that she never really knew her parents after all. Her approach is similar to two other books that I enjoyed so muchBaking as Biography by Diane Tye and Outside the Box by Maria Meindl, in which women’s lives are discovered through unlikely archives.

In the end, They Left Us Everything is a literary mishmash just as much as the cupboards in Johnson’s parents house were repositories for every kind of thing. It’s a tale of grief, but also a record of fantastic stories, memorable characters, of family life in the mid-20th century, a scrapbook of fascinating objects, a portrait of family ties, and what it means to be a daughter and a mother. It’s an artfully crafted memoir, and a really wonderful read.

June 2, 2014

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

roxane-gay-an-untamed-stateFor about two-thirds of An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, I wasn’t sure what to think. The book begins with the most majestically-crafted sentence (“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.”) but then that huge and generous perspective disappears and we’re left with a narrative that moves narrowly between the Before-and-After lives of Mireille Duval Jameson.

Before, ensconced in a fairy tale, confident of her wit and wiles, American born and raised but returned to Haiti, the land of her parents’ birth, her family’s opulent lifestyle conspicuous against the nation’s wider poverty, but this was the only life she knew. And then After, ripped away from her husband and child to be held captive for 14 days and subjected to rape and sadistic violence. From a bubble to a prison then, and while the novel was compelling, there was a flatness to the narrative, its dialogue, and I wanted more in exchange for the violence to which this book’s reader must bear witness—though I will note that the violence is described sparingly, more gestured toward than elaborated upon. Disturbing, yes, but not gratuitous. But still.

And then Mireille is freed (which is not a spoiler) and suddenly, the whole project comes together in the most mesmerizing way and the book became difficult to stop reading. In An Untamed State, the plot is not the point, but rather the point is psychology. First, the psychology of one who is suffering from post-traumatic stress and trauma, as well as the brutal revelation that there is so such thing as safety in the world, not truly. She leaves captivity disconnected from herself—she had to make herself into nothing in order to survive what was inflicted upon her, so how can she get back to the woman was, a wife and mother? Gay’s narrative enacts the processes that Karyn L. Freedman (necessarily, this being non-fiction) more cooly explains in her stunning memoir, One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery. Both books show that trauma is not something one can move on from, but rather that it must be managed and treated on an ongoing basis, like a chronic condition. Which is both heartbreaking, that one never gets over this, but also hopeful—that there is a process at all, and life in the aftermath.

What is most compelling about An Untamed State are the family dynamics that run like fault lines through the entire text. When Mireille is kidnapped, her father refuses to negotiate with them, sacrificing his daughter with his unwillingness to abandon his principles. When she is freed, Mireille has to account for her father’s role in what happened to her, and Gay does a terrific job in making her father a fully-developed, complicated character whose actions are (almost?) understandable, instead of the far more convenient tyrant he could have been. Similarly, her mother’s compliance with her father’s point of view is troubling for her, and even the dynamic she has created with her own husband—she’s hardheaded and hotheaded, prone to running away in hopes of being found, and this time when her husband is unable to find her, the balance between them is upset, perhaps forever. It is remarkable how consistent the characters’ behaviour and actions are throughout the entire novel, and how these actions resonate so very differently in the context of Before and After.

Gay’s allusions to myth and fairy tale add marvellous texture to the novel, and perhaps go some way toward explaining the flatness I was initially confronted with as I read it. There is a deceptive simplicity to the novel that belies its remarkable originality, as does the fact that it’s a really good read. It’s that rare thing—a page-turner whose pages you’ll still be turning in your head long after the book is done.

May 19, 2014

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

this-one-summerIt’s a toss-up, the question of my favourite line from This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. It’s either, “That’s the problem with being adopted. I have no idea how big my boobs are going to be.” or, “You can’t get herpes from a flip-flop.” And it’s remarkable that the lines stand out in a graphic novel, a books whose visuals are so overwhelming. A book whose graphics’ simple blue only emphasizes the detail of the drawings, the clutter in the corners. There are some graphic novels you are breeze through in one sitting, but this isn’t one of them. The illustrations are a marvellous mix of old-school comic style, complete with text to imply sound and movement, and images inspired by scientific drawings of birds, plants and stars. And then full-page spreads with surprising perspectives and you could read this book over and over and discover something new each time.

Summer is fitting for comics, the season allowing plenty of time for pleasure reading, summer cottages perhaps having stacks of old comics on hand. And also for the way that summer is so fleeting–just a few panels in the book of a year. So much of life goes on outside it, and yet these summer memories, these ephemeral experiences of jumping off docks and sitting in sand, are what our minds return to over and over again. Summer brings us to the same old places but we’re a different person each time that we come, as Rose is beginning to discover in the Tamaki cousins’ tale.

And they get the details just right–cottage-country traffic, the winding roads and the posts mounted with family names pointing in their cottages’ directions. When Rose’s family arrives, she goes to find her friend Windy, her cottage friend since age 5. They visit the general store to buy candy, ride their bikes, lounge on the beach, wonder about the local kids and their teenage dramas, contemplate the summer romances they’re still too young for, get bored, get into trouble, wait out the rain.

Outside this chronology of hours, how summer days can stretch so long, there is much more happening, so much that cannot be articulated, which is why this story is such a great fit for a graphic novel. Rose’s parents’ relationship has fractured, her mother seems to be suffering from depression, their family going through their familiar routines but not meaning much of it. The reader also infers that in subsequent summers the differences in Rose and Windy’s ages will start to matter more, that the friends will grow apart, which will be heartbreaking and complicated. But that is a summer still to come.

In the meantime, the girls are on a threshold, having not put away childish things, but beginning to glimpse an adult world before them whose puzzles they just can’t decipher. They still think the puzzles are decipherable, however, so they’re still young yet, looking on in fascination and fear at the possibilities before them, feelings best expressed in an awe-filled silence. And to fill that silence in the meantime, they talk, Mariko Tamaki’s dialogue ringing true. Riding bikes, slouched on porches and bobbing in inner-tubes, doing and talking about everything, and nothing at all.

May 4, 2014

One Hour in Paris by Karyn L. Freedman

one-hour-in-parisIf there is any justice, Karyn L Freedman’s memoir, One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery, will be widely celebrated one of the best Canadian nonfiction titles of 2014. In the book’s first chapter, Freedman, a philosopher and professor at the University of Guelph, tells the story of her own experience with rape at knifepoint in Paris while backpacking through Europe during the summer after her first year in university in 1990. In the rest of the book, she goes on to illustrate her own trauma in the aftermath, her futile attempts to move on from the experiences she suffers from PTSD, how through work with a therapist she learns to finally process what happened to her years after the fact, and eventually applies a philosophical framework to her understanding of her rape and being a rape survivor and to sexual violence against women in a wider and global context.

Freedman is an skilled writer, her prose measured and precise, she is a composer of beautiful sentences, and her mastery of the narrative—which weaves the personal, sociological and philosophical—is impressive. Though I can sense resistance from those readers for whom the book is not directly intended (“I wrote this book for you”, Freedman writes in her prologue to fellow rape-survivors.) So why else  might you want to read this book?

To this point, I return to the book that has become my own personal touchstone in terms of memoir, Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. As I wrote of that book: “To be stirred then, to have our quiet disturbed. Perhaps this is why we should read this, or any book.” Like Wave, One Hour in Paris is a harrowing memoir, difficult to read but even harder to put down. The violence and rape are actually easier to read about than Freedman’s emotional fragility in the years that follow. She recounts what happened to her in a manner that is direct and factual; her intention is not that we relive her experiences—I don’t think she’d wish this on anybody. But more important to Freedman is that her readers understand what it is to live with these experiences, and also to understand the fascinating workings of our brains, how they process or fail to process traumatic events in our lives. 

I started reading the book late in the evening and knew this wouldn’t be a casual reading experience. One can’t stop reading in the middle of the first chapter—there is a need to see the story through to the end, just so we know that it ends. The end of the chapter was devastating, but not entirely, mostly because Freedman’s narrative voice is so authoritative and compelling that I wanted to stick with her. And so I did, glad this dark book about the City of Light was so compact because I carried it in my purse the next day, holding it on one hand while used my other to push my baby in the swing.

And it was there in the playground where I read Freedman’s convincing arguments for speaking out about her rape. Her parents, who emerge along with Freedman herself (and her therapist) as this story’s heroes, wanted to shield her from any more pain or trauma after she came home from Paris. They made up a story about her unexpected homecoming, and were complicit in her attempts to leave the incident in her past, but Freedman comes to see that this decision was not only a misstep in her own recovery, but also how it perpetuates myths about sexual violence. The world, she 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.

What was most remarkable about One Hour in Paris was not just the good writing, or how Freedman offers access to her own experience (though this is something), but how much I learned, about sexual violence and the history of trauma and mental disorders, and the nature of these as well. Freedman comes to see her trauma as a chronic illness, the violent experience having changed the physiology of her brain, and so she much learn to manage her symptoms rather than hope to get beyond them. Even so, her own recovery would offer hope to other survivors that there is life beyond the trauma, that they certainly aren’t alone in what happened to them.

While I do think that while there may not be justice, Freedman’s book does have a chance of doing well with Canadian nonfiction prizes because of the way in which she takes her narrative beyond the personal to discuss sexual violence in general, and also internationally in the context of war crimes. And while I dislike this—the idea that a personal narrative is unworthy of note and one can’t write serious nonfiction without war being part of the mix—I appreciate that Freedman has broadened her approach not just to set up her story of one of grave importance, but because she can’t not do it. Her book avoids the inflammatory phrase “rape culture”, but is a document of its very point. She can’t help but tell her story in a broad context because sexual violence is everywhere, insidious and pervasive all around the world, and until the problem is stated plain, stared in the face as Freedman does, things are never going to be any different.

April 27, 2014

7 Ways to Sunday by Lee Kvern

7-ways-to-sunday“Wild verus farmed,” begins Lee Kvern in the acknowledgements which precede her short story collection, 7 Ways to Sunday. “….I am of the latter variety. Wild. Largely unschooled… I learned the liar’s craft by hell and bent wheels, trials and multiple errors in good story judgement.” Her collection too is wild instead of farmed, 20-some years of stories gathered together for the first time instead of a carefully curated collection that was always going to be a book. And the collection works first because of its wildness, of the characters themselves, of the stories which place the reader in all kinds of situations, stories steeped so in their language and atmosphere so that the reader has to find her bearings every time, finds herself somewhere altogether new, the characters’ situations and fortunes shifting in a way that makes the book’s Snakes and Ladders cover so absolutely perfect. The collection works too just (just !) because Lee Kvern is a fantastic writer. When you’re this good, your 20-some years of stories were probably born to be bound.

I loved this book, hooked by the first story, “White,” in which a woman arrives with her husband and two young sons at an ice-fishing party in the middle of nowhere. It’s a dodgy scene: “We pass a running Plymouth, the windows dressed in rime. Inside: two steamy, half-dressed teenagers ravaging one another. My husband raises a brow at me. Avert, avert, I want to say my boys… Avert your eyes, turn away, this knowledge is not for you.” It’s an idea that runs through the book, parents failing to protect their children from the world, children seeing things they shouldn’t have seen, characters failing to avert their own lines of vision from painful revelations as to the realities of their lives.

In “High Ground,” a mother trails her son from party to party, sitting outside abandoned warehouses behind the wheel of her Camry, as he falls into drug abuse after an injury ends his career as a student athlete. “I miss his bare arms poking out of his Varsity jersey… rather than the tainted ticker tape of his blue tattoos telling the world–here is who he is now.” In “This is a Love Crime”, a woman married to a controlling husband whose behaviour borders on abuse drifts farther and farther from his sphere of influence as she grapples with a problem at her supermarket HR job with a checker who insists on violating the dress code with her hijab. “Detachment” is one of a few stories in the collection that take place on rural RCMP detachments; in this one, a complicated mother-daughter relationship plays out against a dangerous backdrop.

Similar is “In Search of Lucinda”, a 1970s set-piece whose garish colours are strikingly evoked as is scent and atmosphere. In this story, the father’s associates bring home two women whose appearance on the domestic scene is quite incongruous, and the situation (and the woman) is delivered redemption through the guilelessness of a little girl. In “Pioneer”, a mother struggles against love and fear for her son whose gender difference is becoming apparent. In “The Night Doors 1987″, a family arrives at the hospital to be with their ailing father as he dies, the story a devastating, haunting and beautiful portrayal of the last moments of a life, of the parts of life that nobody ever talks about, or at least not this vividly. And I loved the title story, in which redemption is once against delivered almost just past just in time, but leading up to that is the most gut-punching (and cringe-making!) spiral of a life heading out of control. It starts off kind of a funny, a guy so reprehensible that all he has for company are the Jehovah’s Witnesses who show up at his door every week, but instead, Kvern makes us care about him, and the oft-mocked door-knockers are offered literary redemption as well, to be people rather than punchlines. By the end of this fantastic story, I wanted to champion every single character.

April 21, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being

a-tale-for-the-time-beingIt was during the summer of 2001 that I started flexing the muscles that would soon come to constitute the foundation of my self, by which I mean that I started book buying in earnest, books that weren’t secondhand paperbacks on my course lists. It was a pretty fantastic time to be buying books. I wasn’t worldly enough to be aware of Toronto’s independent bookshop scene, but I lived at Bay and Charles and was pretty thrilled by this huge and marvellous Indigo shop that had opened up around the corner, and around the corner from there was Chapters, another mega-bookshop, and this was back when mega-bookshops actually sold books. You know, I have nostalgia for those days, when I thought Chapters and Indigo were wonderlands. Like the World’s Biggest Bookstore, but with comfy chairs, and no dingy lighting. Plus, that summer I was working on King Street East, and at lunch time, we’d stop in at Nicholas Hoare and Little York Books, and suddenly my paycheques weren’t going so far, but there I was with The Portable Dorothy Parker and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and I was this close to being a grown-up person who could buy books whenever she damn well wanted to. It was delicious.

Though I think I got it on sale, Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. A hardcover on the remainder shelf, and I bought it at the Bloor Street Chapters. (I loved that store. I still resent the clothing store that later took over the space.) It may well have been the first hardcover I’d ever bought in my life, remaindered or otherwise. It was a monumental acquisition, fun, smart and quirky. As with White Teeth, it brought me an awareness that literature was being written right now, which had never occurred to me as I was plugging away at my English BA. That there was literature beyond my course lists, Joseph Conrad, orange paperbacks, and the New Canadian Library. Ruth Ozeki was a revelation.

And so I’ve been happy to be revelling in her wonderful new novel, A Tale for the Time Being. Everybody on earth already read this book last year and it was listed for all kinds of awards, but I only just got to it now, and it’s so wonderful. So full of everything, and there was the part that reminded me of Back to the Future, and the other that reminded me of A Swiftly Tilting Planet. It was heartbreaking, strange and really beautiful. Definitely worthy of all the acclaim.

This week, I also read Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson, who I’d never read before, and that was great too. I was inspired to finally pick it up by Theresa Kishkan’s blog post, and it was partly so great to read because I was reading the Persephone edition.

April 6, 2014

My Real Children by Jo Walton

MyRealChildren_Jo-WaltonJo Walton’s previous novel, Among Others, was one of my favourite books of 2012 and won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, which you can’t say about most books that are my favourite books of any year. I appreciate that because of Jo Walton, for me “the Hugo and the Nebula Awards” are now words that flow from my fingers like “Giller” or “Booker” do. Having made her start with fantasy in 2002, Walton’s writing moved in a science fiction direction with her alternate history “Small Change” series (which I can’t wait to read soon), and then proceeded to be altogether genre-busting with Among Others, which, in its unabashed bookishness, was embraced by passionate readers of all stripes. And now she has produced another such genre-busting book with My Real Children, the story of a woman with memory problems who can swear she’s lived two lives.

At first glance, the story recalls the movie Sliding Doors (Gwyneth and a fictional uncoupling, or not–remember?), or Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World—stories about the possibility of two destinies hinging on a single moment. But it also brings to mind Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, the twentieth century told through the experience of a character who gets to live it more than once. But where Walton’s take is particularly compelling and original, as it was with Among Others, is the way her fantastical elements exist in a so-solid reality, leaving it up to the reader to decide where the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur, if it exists at all.

Patricia Cowan is confused, we are told, and some days she’s even “Very Confused”, as the nurses document in their notes on a clipboard at the end of her bed. Is it simply her dementia, or can she remember two lives? Her different children come to visit, there are subtle differences between two care homes where apparently she resides, her different memories. Could this be possible? Is it just senility? Which conclusion is more plausible? And it’s a testament to the spell Walton casts that these questions don’t even matter. To Cowan herself, they certainly don’t.

The “sliding door” moment, that instant in which Patricia Cowan’s life cleaved in two, takes place in 1949 when she agrees to marry Mark. And also when she doesn’t. Up until this point, she’d been swept along in time, losing her brother in WW2, receiving a place at Oxford (because all the men were away, she says, explaining away her success with the tide). She does well at school, finds  a teaching job. But Mark’s less-than-romantic proposal is the definitive moment in which she becomes an agent in her fate. When she says, “Yes,” she finds herself “Tricia”, in a loveless marriage, wed to a tyrant who keeps her powerless and miserable. Saying, “No,” results in Pat, some temporary heartbreak, but then fulfilment found in travel, a writing career, a life partnership with a biologist called Bee.

So which are her real children, Patricia Cowan wonders? The four children she had with Mark? With the son who became a rock star and died young of AIDS? Or the three children she had with Bee, two her biological children and all three fathered by the photographer, Michael? And as the reader is taken through the chronology of these family lives, it becomes clear that Patricia Cowan’s lives took place against political backdrops as different as their domestic ones. As we suspect all along and is confirmed in the book’s final chapter, it’s a butterfly-flapping-its-wings scenario. Is it that Tricia, with a life otherwise devoid of purpose and therefore with time to devote to campaigning for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, is key to the eventual obliteration of such weapons? Whereas Pat lives in a world where nuclear weapons are used more than once, radiation seeping through the atmosphere to disastrous consequences decades later. The Soviets land on the moon. LBJ is implicated in the death of President Kennedy. IRA bombings, Cuban missiles, nuclear exchanges between India and Pakistan, gay marriage made legal in the 1980s, mandatory identity cards, Google in the 1990s, US and Russia aligned against Europe, or American returned to its pre-WW2 isolationist stance. The possibilities are fascinating, how one thing just leads to another. Like a book. Life a life.

As I read this book, I thought less of Kate Atkinson and Sliding Doors and more of Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald biography, which I read in December. Not because Walton and Fitzgerald are anything alike in terms of style, but rather that Fitzgerald and Patricia Cowan are near contemporaries with similar experiences–plans and legacies interrupted by wartime, coming of age in an era overseen by a new establishment, Oxbridge educations that culminate in disappointing marriages and women (in the case of Tricia/Trish) who discover their true capabilities later in life. I suppose it says something about Walton’s skill that her novel calls to mind a Hermione Lee biography, that Patricia Cowan’s two lives seem so convincingly lived.

As the bookish Walton undoubtedly knows, one book always leads to another. I mean, she clearly knows this sort of thing because she’s referenced Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes and Margaret Drabble before you even hit page 16. Eventually, as the end of the book drew nearer (and oh, when it finally happened, I was gutted. I might have wished Patricia Cowan had life after life so that I could have gone on forever reading them…), I was thinking about Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, which similarly spans realistic historical periods to end up in a  dystopian future. The atmosphere at the end of My Real Children is much the same, showing lives impacted by huge and sweeping histories but the details of these lives being the narratives that matter, the only constants in a history constructed of flux.

March 30, 2014

In Love With Art by Jeet Heer


It’s funny that comics have an aura of exclusivity. They’re so of-the-people, pulpy, low-rent accessible. I grew up reading comics, but then these were Archie comics, which aren’t real comics, and so I’ve lost my footing in this world already. Legendary comics store The Beguiling is around the corner from my house, but I’ve never been there for many of the same reasons I’ve never walked into Prada, just a bit further east on Bloor. But then they opened a sister shop nearby, Little Island Comics for kids, and I have a kid, so we went there, and our family’s comics love has been growing ever since. Harriet and Stuart are currently reading Wonderland by Tommy Kovac and Sonny Liew over and over, I read Jane, the Fox and Me last week, Harriet is obsessed with Wonder Woman and the DC Comics I Can Read books, she adores Binky, we got our first Silly Lilly book a long time ago, and bought Jack and the Box at Little Island just the other day (after this great recommendation by Michael Barclay). Parenthood has been my gateway to the world of comics, and I’m so grateful for that.

Silly Lilly and Jack and the Box are published by TOON Books, a series of stylish, smart, well-designed comics for kids packaged neatly as hardcover books. TOON Books was founded by Francoise Mouly, who is better known (as much as Francoise Mouly is considered “known” at all) as the partner of Art Spiegelman, of Maus fame. Using interviews and archival research, Jeet Heer has written a short biography of Mouly, In Love With Art, in an attempt to bring Mouly out from her husband’s shadow, though it’s actually Mouly of the two whom I know best, from her work as founder and Editorial Director of TOON Books and also by her long-time position as Art Editor of The New Yorker with its iconic covers. I may not have known Francoise Mouly’s name, but it turns out I’ve been paying attention to her work for a long time.

In Love With Art is part of Exploded Views, a new series of short books published by Coach House Books, books that in their immediacy read like extended magazine articles. Heer, with his signature mix of down to earth and erudite (and the world’s best vocabulary—who knew that “shanghai” was a verb?) has created a fascinating, absorbing book that made me grateful for the mild temperatures that allowed to me to continue reading (mitten-less) even after I got off the subway and was walking down the street. It’s a book that fit in my coat pocket and I read it in a day, but kept talking about it after with everyone I ran into. “Francoise Mouly. You think you don’t know her, but you do. You’ve got to read this book.”

It’s a fascinating story of a woman in a man’s world, of her childhood and formative years coming of age in France around 1968. She studied architecture, developing an design aesthetic that she’s applied to every project she’s done since, including low-grade jobs like “colourist”, overriding general consensus that jobs like this don’t matter. Not a comic writer herself, instead she’s a comics editor–who even knew there was such a thing? And part of the reason you’ve never heard of her is because her greatest impact has been in helping well-known artists to create their best work. With Spiegelman, she edited the RAW comics magazine for years, work from which is reproduced in In Love With Art in full colour, alone with her memorable New Yorker covers.

I was as surprised as anyone to discover that I, a woman who grew up reading Archie’s Pals and Gals, was this book’s ideal reader, but then it’s not so surprising after all. Women’s lives, women’s stories, women’s art, women for whom motherhood is a kind of answer—it’s been my thing all along. Consider my view exploded then. In the best way.

March 23, 2014

The Age by Nancy Lee

the-ageMy review of The Age by Nancy Lee appeared in The Globe and Mail this weekend:

It seems fitting, if sinister, to suggest that something in the air could be responsible for a strange tension emanating lately from the nation’s western edge. The Age – the long-awaited first novel by Nancy Lee, who won acclaim with the short-story collection Dead Girls– joins terrific recent fiction by Zsuzsi Gartner and Caroline Adderson to form a subgenre of Vancouver literature that puts the “domestic” in domestic terrorism. These works explore female characters’ relationships to extremism to complicate notions of home and family.

Lee’s title refers to two pivotal ages, her plot born of their intersection. The first is the age in which her story takes place, 1984, which, thanks to Orwell, was always going to be a storied year, even if Soviet warships hadn’t been gathering in the Atlantic with the Doomsday Clock ticking close to midnight. It would be a peculiar time in which – and here’s the second title reference – to come of age, seemingly on the brink of annihilation, as is the case for Gerry, Lee’s misfit protagonist.

Read the whole thing here.

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