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September 27, 2015

Fishbowl, by Bradley Somer

fishbowlIt’s true what you might have heard about Bradley Somer’s Fishbowl being a novel that actually chronicles a goldfish’s plummet from the twenty-seventh floor balcony of a high rise apartment building. (I heard my first raves about this book from the Parnassus Books blog.) And yes, the goldfish parts of the novel are actually from the fish’s point of view: at one point, one eye is skyward, and the other is focussed on the ground—what must the world look like like that?; his brain is too limited for a train of thought—it’s more like a handcar. Yes, the fish’s name is name is Ian. And it’s also true what you might have heard about Fishbowl if the thing you’ve heard is that it’s great.

The structure of fishbowl is similar to the apartment building that is its setting, each unit home to its own story, stories stacked on top of stories. Common spaces are spare, unremarkable. Nobody lingers there. For each character it’s easy to imagine that he or she is alone in the world, to disregard the sound of footsteps overhead. But one day when the elevator breaks down, the illusion is shattered. Suddenly lives are intersecting in curious, irrevocable ways. A baby is about to be born. An old man has died. A cheating lover is about to meet his comeuppance. A lonely burly crossdressing construction worker is about to feel more beautiful than he’s ever felt before. And Ian the goldfish is about to be launched upon the ride of his life.

Eschewing a linear narrative for something more like a fish’s grasp of eternity, the novel takes place over a half hour or so, moving back and forth within that span of time (and sometime telescoping omnisciently into a distant future) to examine the period from a variety of points of view. For those ascending the building’s staircase—the elevator is broken, remember—time moves in slow motion, ploddingly, exhaustingly. For the lying cheat upstairs who is hurriedly ridding his bachelor suite of all signs of debauchery, time moves much too fast, not enough of it to allow him to clear away the evidence. For the woman whose baby is coming, everything is happening much too quickly, but also taking forever. And when she finally manages to reach her boyfriend at the pub, he tells her that he’ll be there—after one more round.

Fishbowl is a novel about relativity and relationships, and infinite interconnectedness of things. It’s also funny, absorbing, poignant, rich with twists and surprises, smartly plotted, deep and intelligent. And heartwarming—if you’re into that kind of thing. Underlining that although a person might be lonely, she is never really alone.

September 20, 2015

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

fates-and-furies“…consider sacrificing surprise, the lowest form of literary pleasure, for the much richer satisfaction the first half of this novel can deliver when read in light of the second,” writes Laura Miller in her review of Lauren Groff’s new novel, Fates and Furies, in which spoilers are revealed. A line I delighted in when I first came upon it; that a good book can’t be spoiled is something I’ve long insisted on. But like all good rules, there are exceptions, and I got to thinking about them after reading Miller’s review. There are books—one of my favourite books, We Need to Talk About Kevin is one; a more recent example is Karma Brown’s debut, Come Away With Mealso Kate Atkinson’s wonder A God in Ruins—in which the element of surprise is an integral part of the reading experience. In which the reader gets to the twist, puts the book down and asks, “How did she do that?” When we aren’t even aware that a twist is coming. And then the reader goes on to pick the book up again in order to discover the answer to how did she do that, compelled by the crafting that goes into the kind of book that will never be read the same way twice. Whereas other compelling books—Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train—fail to similarly necessitate another reading. The twists are all. These are books—gripping, great and fun, but still—that can be spoiled merely by being read.

Fates and Furies is not quite either kind of book, but that is not surprising. I still vividly remember reading Groff’s debut, The Monsters of Templeton, for the very first time, and being bowled over by the book’s audacity, by the author’s talent. And with each subsequent book—the story collection, Delicate Edible Birds, and the acclaimed novel, Arcadia—Groff has surpassed all expectations. She’s a writer of huge ambition and even larger canvases, unabashedly literary, unabashedly story, traditional in her approach to crafting fiction, except that she seems to be reinventing the novel every time, pressing at its limits. I’ve spent the last week reading Fates and Furies and being particularly annoyed that anybody imagines Jonathan Franzen to be “a greatest living novelist” (?) when: Lauren Groff. Lauren Groff. Lauren Groff.

(If she were a man and a giant asshole, however, she’d definitely be discussed in those terms.)

There is not a twist in Fates and Furies, per se, but instead a shift. At one point, its shape is described as an X, an intersection. It’s the story of a marriage, but as Robin Black’s review on The New York Times explains, it’s (mercifully!) not so much about the institution of marriage as one marriage specifically, the individuals entwined within. The first half of the book (Fates) is concerned with Lancelot Satterwhite, known as Lotto, destined for greatness from birth. His story a whirlwind, taking us from his childhood growing up wealthy in Florida, his father’s death, his mother’s descent into mental illness, teenage delinquency headed off at the pass via prep school, and the college. And at the end of his four years there, on a cusp (he hopes) of a career as an actor, he meets Mathilde. They marry after a two week courtship, and for the next two decades she supports him through lean times and periods of great success as he finds fame and fortune as a playwright. The reader is party to their healthy sex life, chatter at their popular parties, their quiet moments and their public ones, as well as scenes from some of Lotto’s plays. Mathilda silent in the background, “a saint,” Lotto calls her, as well as a “pathological truth-teller.” The quintessential caregiver, wife.

I wasn’t sure… This is what I reported as I was reading through the novel initially, sometimes finding Groff’s prose overwritten, while at the same time fragmented in a way that was off-putting. The story so male, centred on the penis. Literally and otherwise. It wasn’t overwhelmingly interesting. And yet, I knew there was something. I wasn’t sure what because (uncharacteristically) I’d been avoiding spoilers, but I’d read the headline of Ron Charles’ review in the Washington Post which contained the word “masterful,” and the I’d read the first sentence: “Even from her impossibly high starting point, Lauren Groff just keeps getting better and better.” So I had faith, and I certainly wasn’t bored, just baffled, and it was just that my expectations were oh so high.

And as usual, Lauren Groff met them and then some.

There is not a twist in Fates and Furies, per se, but instead a shift. Midway through the book, the perspective moves to Mathilde’s, and we learn that nothing has been what it seems. And while Lotto’s story is indeed one of fate and luck and fortune, Mathilde has been the true orchestrator of their shared life, pulling strings Lotto never glimpsed (though as we note them dangling when we’re impelled to go back and reread). Mathilde’s story is the Furies of the title, beginning with a tragic childhood and, as Laura Miller writes, “Mathilde’s story contains more outlandishly fictional twists than those of David Copperfield, The Goldfinch’s Theo Decker, and Becky Sharp combined.” It’s all a bit nuts, but fascinating in its intersections with Lotto’s story, how the two parts complement each other. A bit of a relief too.

And fascinating for what the novel says about women’s lives and women’s stories, about the role of the wife, which is nothing like Lotto envisaged. In her acknowledgements, Groff credits the work of Jane Gardam for helping to inspire Fates and Furies, and the reader can see how she was inspired by Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat in her construction of separate universes within a single marriage, all the ways in which we are infinitely unknowable to each other.

Fates and Furies also suggests that men’s stories automatically take precedent in the literary canon. That Lotto’s story comes first is as symbolic as it is for literary emphasis. It would be easy for the reader to miss that Mathilde is a writer as well (and not just in her role as actual co-author of Lotto’s plays, manipulating his work as she did their entire life, perhaps this ensuring success). She’s a little bit Judith Shakespeare, albeit actually writing, but nobody reads it.

Anger’s my meat; I sup upon myself
And so shall starve with feeding.
Volumnia says this in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. She—steeling, controlling—is far more interesting than Coriolanus.
Alas, nobody would go to see a play called Volumnia.

(Later we learn that Mathilde writes a play called Volumnia. Nobody goes to see it.)

If there is a twist in Fates and Furies, it occurs in the novel’s final five pages, in which the book’s two sections are woven together in the most beautiful, heartbreakingly lovely manner. In which we realize that this isn’t just about two solitudes and deception, but that even with secrets, misunderstandings and mysteries never solved, there is such a thing as love after all. That the novel is not point and counterpoint, illusion and reality. That like all the great polarities, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

September 14, 2015

Martin John, by Anakana Schofield

martin-john“That’s aggressive, but you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.” 

Anakana Schofield’s Martin John, a novel about a sexual deviant and the follow-up to her award-winning Malarky, is primarily a book about language. It’s about sexual violence is able to happen because of words and ideas that are never articulated or defined, and how these ellipses in our understanding go on to create further damage and harm. “It was a time when people didn’t ask as many questions. That’s the time it was.”

And so in order to fill in the blank, to ask the questions, to define the it, Schofield has to reinvent the shape of a novel. Eschewing chronology, point-of-view, objectivity, artifice itself for something that more resembles a case study, a long-form incident report. Just the latest for Martin John, the reader supposes, who has been in and out of the care of psychologists, social workers and other medical professionals for much of his life. Though he makes a point to stay out of their way—meddlers—and to keep to his routines, essential. He’s holding down a job as a security guard, lives in a nondescript shabby house in London (albeit one cluttered with the detritus of his media habits), visits his Aunt Noanie on Wednesdays, under specific instruction of his mother back in Ireland. (D’ya hear me, Martin John?) But it’s clear that, no matter his circuits and refrains, this centre (a precarious arrangement orchestrated by the mother) simply cannot hold.

The Mother. Martin John’s mother is a spiritual sister to Our Woman from Malarky, who does make an appearance in this latest book, encountering Martin John in a psychiatric ward. (You might remember him as “Beirut”.) Both women are undone by motherhood, wielding teapots as weapons, this action underlining their powerlessness. And yet. Are they really powerless? Are they bad mothers? Do they do what they do out of love? Or what? Do we blame the mother? Does it even matter? Does being a mother somehow put a woman beyond reproach?

Do we blame the mother? The collective address here is not rhetorical. I’m talking to you, and Schofield’s narrator is talking to all of us:

“She did not the idea she had a role in it.
You would not like the idea you had a role in it.
Did she have a role in it?
Have you had a role in it?
Do you have a role in this?”

Martin John forces the reader to be held accountable for some of the violence contained therein, for that time it was in which people didn’t ask as many questions is happening right now. “A thesaurus of vagueness for remembering,” Schofield writes. Think of a now-infamous CBC presenter, hmm? All this making for a discomforting read, made even more so, remarkably, by the reading not being so discomforting at all.

For a novel about a sexual deviant, Martin John is positively breezy. It’s humorous in places, fast-paced, its momentum spurred on by the arrows separating the text’s sections, part of the book’s overall transit motif. A motif that’s important to understanding the book as a whole, notions of underground and close proximity, of public, that these are people who live among us—they are us. And what are to do about that? The idea of transit and transit maps connecting to Martin John’s behaviour too, his loops and circuits. A sense of inevitability. The way that one thing leads to another: “Strange. Estranged. Estuary ranged.” It all comes back to words again, connections, missed or otherwise.

As Anakana Schofield is a friend of mine, I perhaps cannot be relied for a wholly objective review of her work, those it pleases me immensely that I don’t have to be. Read a rave review (one of many) from the Globe and Mail this weekend, and celebrate Martin John’s deserved appearance on the Scotiabank Giller longlist.

September 5, 2015

Come Away With Me, by Karma Brown

come-away-with-meI am intrigued by questions of how people survive the seemingly unsurvivable, which was the reason I picked up Come Away With Me, Canadian writer Karma Brown’s debut novel. It’s the story of Tegan Lawson who had everything she’d ever wanted—an amazing husband and a baby on the way—when the dream is shattered by a horrific accident. Five months after the tragedy, her husband implores her to pick up the pieces of their life (and perhaps begin to forgive him for the accident, as he was driving the night it happened) by embarking on the trip of a lifetime to Thailand, Italy and Hawaii. Reluctantly, she goes, though she is not sure she’s ready (and neither are their families). And the trip itself does not prove to be the salve it might have been in a lesser novel, all of their troubles simply melting away—Tegan’s not taking her anti-depressants, she’s regularly still overcome with despair, her anger toward her husband seems impossible to let go of. And here we begin to see that this dream getaway is not the end of Tegan’s story but it’s the beginning of new one that’s vastly different than the life she’d planned on and dreamed of.

I read this book with pleasure, appreciating its light touch in particularly after spending a week carrying around the Joan Didion bio. Though it’s essential to note that my full appreciation of its remarkable structure and craft was not clear until close to the end. Until that point, I’d been putting some hollow characterization and a bit of narrative strangeness down to the fact that this was a(n otherwise capable) first novel. “I like this book, but…” I was saying to my husband yesterday. Not supposing that all this was part of an authorial sleight of hand that was so absolutely mind-blowing. By which I mean that the discerning reader should be encouraged to bear with this book: rewards will be forthcoming. You’ll see what I mean.

By rights, this book should be terrifically sad, and while I was discovered in a puddle of tears this morning by my concerned family (who wondered why I was taking even longer than usual to get out of bed), Come Away With Me leaves its reader buoyed and full of hope. In the best ways, it reminded me of Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave and also Laurie Colwin’s Shine On Bright and Dangerous Object (which I reread this summer and absolutely adored). It’s an impressive and memorable novel celebrating life and love and the possibilities of survival.

August 17, 2015

A Really Good Brown Girl, by Marilyn Dumont

a-really-good-brown-girlI hadn’t budgeted for books at The Stop Farmers’ Market at Artscape Wychwood Barns a few weeks back, but it turned out that Pedlar Press and Brick Books were vendors (and I met Kate Cayley, whose How You Were Born I loved so much!) so I couldn’t help but pick up something. And I am so glad that the something I got turned out to be the deluxe redesign of Marilyn Dumont’s Gerald Lampert-winning debut collection, A Really Good Brown Girl. A book I read in days, which is rare for me and poetry, but I was captivated by the narrative, the language, the brute force of these poems, as well as their sense of humour, their cheek. “Squaw Poems,” about growing up Metis on the prairies, a household surrounded by “The White Judges” who waited to pounce. And never really went away. But then—

“I am in a university classroom, an English professor corrects my spoken/ English in front of the class. I say, “really good.” He say, “You mean/ really well, don’t you?” I glare at him and say emphatically, “No I/ mean really good.”

This line giving the book its title, a double as so many of the poems show the Metis girl who hears, “You are not good enough, not good enough, obviously not good enough/ The chorus is never loud or conspicuous,/ just there.” And also connecting Dumont not just to her literal foremothers (the women raising Blue Ribbon children with the White Judges looming ) but her literary foremothers too—in her Afterword she writes of the African-American women writers who inspired her, and other Indigenous writers from all around the world. She writes of another really good brown girl in “Helen Betty Osborne”:

Betty, if I set out to write this poem about you/ it might turn out instead/to be about me.

Another poem, “Letter to Sir John A. MacDonald”:

Dear John: I’m still here and halfbreed,/ after all these years/ you’re dead, funny thing… / because you know as well as I/ that we were railroaded/ by some steel tracks that didn’t last/ and some settlers who would settle/ and it’s funny we’re still here and callin’ ourselves halfbreed.

The poems are their own context, but in this new edition they are complemented by Dumont’s Afterword, as well as with an introduction by Lee Maracle:

“No other book so exonerates us, elevates us and at the same time indicts Canada in language so eloquent it almost hurts to hear it.”

I’m so glad I finally read it.

August 16, 2015

This is Happy, by Camilla Gibb

Book Cover This is HappyWhile it is certainly true, as Joan Didion wrote, that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, it is possible that by now the phrase itself has become so hackneyed as to be a cliche, as have become gushing publisher’s copy comparing heartbreaking memoirs to Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking. But while the good people at Doubleday Canada have resisted to the temptation to slap Camilla Gibb’s memoir, This Is Happy, with the Magical Thinking comparison, I think this the rare case in which the comparison really does apply—Gibb’s memoir is a no-holds-barred dispatch about devastating heartbreak from the frontiers of stark grief, a gut-wrenching story told from the perspective of a most cool and discerning “I”. It’s the “telling ourselves stories in order to live” in practice, Gibb, like Didion, pasting the pieces of her shattered life together, the art that emerges from the exercise.

For anyone familiar with Gibb’s fiction, much the memoir will be familiar too, so much of the former rich with autobiographical details, her first two novels in particular. It is clear that Gibb has been telling herself stories in order to live since her success with her first book in 1999, Mouthing the Words, which was also the story of a young girl from a broken home with a troubled father and plenty of trauma, mental illness, and the disillusionment of the Oxford experience. In This is Happy, Gibb goes back to her own beginnings to paint a picture of her early struggles, trying to pinpoint the moment where it all went wrong.

The happy ending was supposed to be Gibb’s marriage, which lasted ten years, to a woman who is called “Anna” in the book. A period of calm, of happiness. She does not slip into depression, she writes, she finds continued literary success. And then in her late thirties, she is surprised by a yearning to have a baby. After a painful miscarriage (though I don’t know there is any other kind), Gibb finds herself pregnant again, still tentatively so—just eight weeks along. When Anna reveals that their relationship is over, that she has fallen out of love with her. Sending Gibb into torrents of grief, which is extra-troubling because of the new life she carries inside her: this was supposed to be a beginning. Instead it’s more of the same, and Gibb fears her child growing up with the same hardships, emotional deprivations, and sense of displacement that plagued her throughout her own childhood. The damage is being done already, she feels, knowing how a fetus is meant to be affected by a mother’s stress. And she is powerless to stop it.

Except that she isn’t, which is the miracle of narrative. That it moves forward, even if one is only crawling in agony. The final third of the book is the story of Gibb’s pregnancy and experience of new motherhood, and it’s not clear for a long time that this will be a story of triumph. For most of this period, Gibb is wracked with despair, receiving special care after the baby arrives—she realizes later—not because her midwife has concerns about lactation, but because she is crying all the time. Gibb resisting a diagnosis of depression in a way I find interesting, because felt similarly when I first became a mother: that this is not depression, it just that life is terrible. Except that for Gibb, returning to antidepressants brings with it some relief. As does the support system that she has built around her as she’s put her life back together again.

In the new home that she has made for herself and her daughter, Gibb is surrounded by her long-estranged bother, an addict struggling to overcome his demons; her nanny, Tita, an immigrant from the Philippines who is waiting to be able to bring her husband to Canada to be with her; as well as friends, but not the ones she might have expected. Her brother builds her a back deck and does home renovations, she and Tita embark upon the complicated dance of an employer and employee who become much more than that. When her daughter is just a few weeks old, Gibb takes her across the country on tour for her novel, The Beauty of Humanity movement, revealing little of her pain in media interviews, though to be fair, most new mothers only ever really understand the mess they were in in retrospect anyway.

It is not a convenient trajectory: this unconventional family arrangement is not the ending either, but a moment in time. Gibb’s brother eventually leaves for Vancouver, his period of sobriety ending; Tita’s husband arrives, and they’re going to need space to become a family of their own. Gibb’s daughter gets older, a little person in her own right. Every resolution brings with it another kind of challenge, but eventually—with the help of her psychoanalyst, her unique support network, and a lot of what she’s learned about herself in the stories she’s told herself in order to live and then interrogated in order to see deeper—she finds some kind of footing:

“This is the circle that could never quite be complete… It is a story with a different ending. A story without an ending at all./ And this, I know, is happy.”

The amazing but necessary understatement of the final statement. Happiness being only an ordinary thing. And it is, and yet one must undergo a certain amount of experience before understanding that there is nothing ordinary about it—Joan Didion wrote about that in Blue Nights.

While Gibb’s own story is harrowing and awful, it emerges not as the most remarkable element of the memoir, which is instead her narrative voice, the “I” that is Didionesque. Not in the rhythms and cadence, for Gibb’s prose is excellent and entirely her own, but in the distance, the coolness, and restraint. The reader is not to imagine herself in Gibb’s shoes on that fateful day when everything changed, when she’d just purchased a freezer full of expensive fish, anticipating dinner parties and occasions unrolling into the future like a ribbon. She gives a sense of what it felt like, but that sense is not the point: the point is what does it mean? What does one make out of this kind of devastation?

And in Gibb’s case, with This is Happy, the answer is a beautiful, powerful book.

July 12, 2015

The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits

folded clockOn Monday evening, I became overwhelmed by an irrational compulsion to go out and purchase a copy of Heidi Julavits’ new book, The Folded Clock: A Diary. Like I really needed another book, but there was something about this one—I’d been reading about it at edge of evening over the past month or so—and I not only had a car (I was visiting my parents in Peterborough where the chain bookstore is open late) but I had no one sensible to talk me out of  an out-of-the-way jaunt to the bookstore past the children’s bedtime, so we went and I am so glad we did. It would be a shame if my totally irrational compulsion purchase turned to be disappointing, but it was amazing, mind-blowing. I read it once and then went through it again in my hammock yesterday, making notes, trying to figure the whole thing out. It doesn’t hurt that the cover designer is Leanne Shapton, though the only bad thing about that is that the cover got damaged in my bag and now I am a little bit devastated.

The Folded Clock is a diary, though it’s a most peculiar diary. Chronology is jettisoned in favour of an arrangement of time that is and isn’t wholly random. A year’s worth of entries, each one beginning with, “Today I…” The book’s inspiration, Julavits writes, coming from an experience she had revisiting the diaries of her young, writing that she’d always imagined was her foundation as a writer, and finding instead of a foundation that, “The actual diaries revealed me to possess the mind of a paranoid tax auditor.” Time itself, she notes, had changed, becoming sweeping, a simple day insubstantial. She’d also recently borne a serious illness, one that challenged her perceptions of time: “It was no longer linear; it did not cut through my day like a road. I did not see time ahead of me. I experienced time on top of me.”

the-folded-clock-a-diaryTime is a preoccupation of the entries in The Folded Clock, as evidenced by the title. Time itself not linear—many of the “Today I…” entries are actually about events decades-old, inspired by objects or experiences in the present day—and there is the issue of the construction of the book itself, which was deeply revised and shaped over another period of time divorced from the immediacy of the diary. Parenthood is another preoccupation connected to time—the impossibly tiny span of a childhood, which spins out of our control, and then conversely (but not really), the unbearable vastness of time in a child’s company: “how can this day not mostly involve my waiting for it to be over?”

The diary’s various settings become familiar—the writer’s apartment in New York City, the community in Maine where Julavits, her husband and their children spend their summers, the German villa where they’re living while her husband is on a fellowship, and various artist retreats to which she escapes throughout the year. There is nothing haphazard in the entries’ arrangement, so that we’re introduced to a concept or thing or incident and will be referenced later, our knowledge taken for granted. Less obviously, the entries seem contextualized from a future vantage point so that each one takes its reader somewhere—a mini-essay every one. There is cohesion to the entire project, though the patterns are difficult to discern. Which is the point, Julavits points out, in one of the several clues she offers throughout the book pertaining to its curious construction:

“What’s on the page appears to have busted out of my head and traveled down my arms and through my fingers and my keyboard and coalesced on the screen. But it didn’t happen like that; it never happens like that.”

The Folded Clock is a book about the puzzles and mysteries of an ordinary comfortable life. For me, one of those mysteries is the way that a book—an object wholly apart from my existence, until I bought it—can appear to be reading my mind, stealing my life. (I have this experience also when I am reading Rebecca Solnit.) Like Julavits’ whole chapter about Wasted: The Preppie Murder, by Linda Wolfe, and being three fucks away from Robert Chambers—not that I have ever been such a thing, but I have a thing about that book. Or about abortions as women’s work, about how the boyfriends are always informed but they’re never there—abortions are something that happen between friends. About the internet and desire, about conscious attempts to resist the google-ization of everything—which is interesting because there is at first glance something so bloggish about Julavits’ approach, and yet the construction of her entries is so counter to blogging’s immediacy. The Folded Clock is a bit of a throwback, a project decidedly analogue.

It works because the writing is wonderful: lines like, “Worrying about originality is like worrying about the best place to hang your wall phone.” Anecdotes that start with, “Once I stole the name of a fetus.” How could you not want to read the rest? And while her prose style isn’t Didion’s, Julavits has that writer’s ability to lay down a thread and appear to be following it, while she is in fact blazing an altogether different trail. Connections, symbioses, and coincidence—all interwoven, meaningful and nothing by the by. And always, unfailingly, interesting. The question of whether male writers ever consider female writers a threat. The nature of relationships. Some of these entries made me uncomfortable, sometimes because I couldn’t identify, and other times because I could. And any diary worth its salt should garner such a response.

I loved this weird wonderful beautiful book, a book that was also easy to read in little bits—important when I was caring for my children without a break last week. A book I knew I needed before I needed it, and there is something otherworldly about the whole thing. Or perhaps I mean the opposite, that the book—with its preoccupation with objects and thingness and remarkable beauty as a thing itself—is eerily all too wordly—but then its not, it’s so rarefied, no matter how much it seems to have busted out of a head, out of the earth.

But still, it’s the kind of object one wants to go around clutching. Last week I wrote down directions to my friend’s house on a yellow post-it note that I promptly lost, mysteriously—which is another of Julavits’ preoccupations, the way that an object can dematerialize. When I found the post-it note again yesterday between the end pages and the back cover, I was not at all surprised. And I left it there. I will discover it again the next time I read the book, and of course I will remember.

July 5, 2015

I Take You, by Eliza Kennedy

i-take-youA few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the trouble with comic heroines, their forever blunders, self-deprecation and “one-downmanship”, and about how female characters are not often permitted access to what novelist Kate Christensen refers “an august tradition of hard-drinking, self-destructive, hilarious anti-heroes” ala Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. Christensen was talking here about the protagonist of her first novel, In the Drink, a character who ended up being pegged as a not-quite-Bridget-Jones (without the sweetness)—it was the late ’90s after all. But nearly 20 years later, readers still don’t quite know what to do with a female counterpart to a character like Amis’s Lucky Jim—a character who messes up, isn’t necessarily loveable, and who doesn’t care if you don’t like it. A character like Lily Wilder, the hard-drinking, crazy-for-sex heroine of Eliza Kennedy’s debut novel, I Take You.

But I loved her. I did. Within the first few pages it is clear that Lily drinks too much, swears religiously, and has no compunction about casual sex as long as the sex is excellent, and it was all so refreshing. That she was a bit silly, but not stupid. That she was empowered, interesting, and nobody’s victim. Which is not to say that she hasn’t herself in quite a pickle as the novel begins: Lily is engaged to Mr. Wonderful—it’s been a whirlwind—and she’s pretty sure she even loves him, but she still can’t kick her habit of picking up men in bars and in elevators, and, well, everywhere. Lily wants to marry Will, because he’s a smart choice and Lily is wise enough to be in the habit of making these. But she doesn’t seem ready to become domesticated—and now the wedding is just days away.

The thing about Lily Wilder is that she’s happy. In fact, she insists upon her happiness, her value, which is rare with comic heroines. She is not a problem to be solved, and she doesn’t want to be fixed. She just wants to have it both ways—but how?

The story is set in Key West, Lily’s hometown, where she runs into a childhood friend with whom she has a complicated past. Her father, a dashing Lothario, is in town for the wedding, and so are all his ex-wives, plus Lily’s friends, and Will’s too—she accidentally sleeps with one of the groomsmen. So things aren’t at all straightforward even beyond the state of the forthcoming union, plus Lily has to do some work while she’s on her vacation, coaching a client for an upcoming deposition—her law firm is defending an oil company whose drilling explosion has caused massive devastation throughout the Gulf.

Madcap shenanigans ensue, with lots of smart writing, funny dialogue, and plenty of explicit sex—the prose is as shy as Lily is. The novel suffers from two problems, which seem somewhat incongruous—the first is that the political ramifications of the plots are heavily underlined in expository dialogue. I get that this is a huge revolution, a heroine who loves sex and is unabashed about it, that there is a massive double standard at work in which men get to be awesome for sleeping around but women get to be sluts. Though perhaps these underlinings would be helpful to a reader who is a little less unaware than I am. My second criticism is that the ending was a bit too neat, though the neatness was satisfying, but my eyebrows were just a little but raised.

But never mind, because I devoured this book in 24 hours, stayed up late reading, enjoyed myself immensely, and laughed out loud more than once. It’s a book that promised to be funny, and it really really was (although funny is subjective—Goodreads reviewers seem to disagree with me on this point, although it’s possible that they’re all idiots). It’s a book that surprised me, didn’t underestimate my intelligence, and dared to be different from almost every book I’ve ever read. A book that underlines also that women are complex, interesting people, and their comic heroines deserve to be just the same. And this one is.

I Take You is fantastic.

June 28, 2015

How You Were Born by Kate Cayley


When I was away last weekend, Kate Cayley’s story collection, How You Were Born, was an ideal literary companion. Slimish, perfectly packaged, each story its own realized vision. Its effect more muted and subtle than Rhonda Douglas’s Welcome to the Circus, another short story collection I’ve loved lately, but still—so very good. Which is important when one is away from home and hoping for reading as excellent as one’s surroundings—the kind of thing you mustn’t get wrong. When our mini-break was over, I could underline its success by the fact that I’d managed to nearly get a whole book read, and I am glad that it was this one.

Kate Cayley is a playwright, poet, prize-winning YA author, and now, with How You Were Born, recipient of the Trillium Book Award. The day the book took the prize, I received my copy in the mail from All Lit Up, which technically means that I liked this book before it was so extraordinary lauded (and therefore am cool and a tastemaker), but one might have expected as much from Cayley. Though it’s worth noting that How You Were Born beat out novels by Margaret Atwood and Thomas King for the prize. Perhaps they should put that on a sticker and slap it on the cover.

It has been interesting to read these stories, many of which are about Queer family life, sandwiched between Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset, which tell of the same. In Cayley’s first story, “Resemblance,” two women and their daughter travel to visit the mother of the girl’s biological father, who is recently deceased. The ending is quiet, ambiguous and uncomfortable as these people consider the weight and meaning of their connections. “The Summer the Neighbours Were Nazis” is spun from the most marvellous beginning: “My brother Richard was odd. By the time he was twelve my mother yearned for a diagnosis, but he was just odd.” A brother and sister spend their days high up in the backyard birch tree observing their eccentric neighbours, and the sister comes in sight of her own mother’s struggles and powerlessness: “My mother…was more like Richard than she knew.”

In “Stain,” a man attending a wedding weekend meets up with a woman he’d briefly encountered years ago in 2001 at the anti-capitalist protests in Quebec City. In “Midway, Midgets and Giants, Photograph 1914,” a two-feet-seven-inch tall circus performer reads of the legendary romance between Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, their wedding presided over by PT Barnum, and scans the crowds looking for her true love in the stands. And then a different turn altogether with “Fetch,” in which a man who supposes that his double has moved in next door, a harbinger of death, and responds as rationally as you might expect. “Acrobat” has a similar tone to “The Summer the Neighbours Were Nazis”, about a lonely girl who is new in town and partakes in an informal acrobatic circus, and learns something fundamental truth about herself in the story’s final moment.

In “Long Term Care,” things get complicated when an elderly father is moved into an assisted living unit, and his daughter fears that he is imagining himself back in Buchenwald, where he was traumatized in his youth. The blind protagonist of “Blind Poet” has a fleeting affair with an artist, the story tied up on classical allusion. “Young Hennerly” is a story and also the title of a creepy song sung to a folklorist collecting stories of residents of the mountains of West Virginia who finds the borders between life and myth begin to blur. In the Alice Munrovian “Boys,” a man finds himself responsible for his cousin who has always been a bit different, and whose own behaviour with young boys skirts the line between innocent and otherwise. And in the title story, a woman tells her child, about the sides and allegiances of motherhood, and of daring the “gamble” of bringing a child into the world.

May 12, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

a-god-in-ruinsI’m such an admirer of omniscience, though I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. There are readers for whom omniscience pulls them out of the story, exposing the limits of the fictional universe—that all this is artifice after all—but those very same limits, to me, are the very indicators that there is a fictional universe. It’s the point of reading a book, a whole imagined world to be revealed, and Kate Atkinson is a master at commanding its reins. From her very first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which begins with Ruby Lennox’s conception: “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall…”—Atkinson has been part of a grand tradition of English writers (Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, etc.) pushing the bounds of narrative to discover just what a novel can hold and the multitudinous ways a story can be told.

Her last novel, Life After Lifewas unabashed in its experimentation. What if, it supposed, a person could go back in her life, over and over again, and have the chance to do over what went wrong before? This was the story of Ursula Todd whose preternatural tendency toward expiration is matched only by her ability to be reborn (“I exist!”) over and over. Her story spans the first half of the twentieth century, encompassing world wars and radical social change. The metaphysical elements of the novel are never clearly delineated—Ursula sort of understands her situation but Atkinson provides no reason for her ability to be reborn and go back in time over and over again. Life After Life is a novel far more concerned with What If? than Why?—to what extent is there predestiny, can we control our fates, what are unintended consequences of that control? Can practice make perfect? What I found remarkable about Life After Life is that Atkinson uses her life-after-life device not just to play tricks, but to build characters too and and develop plot, and how this book of starts comes together to be something altogether whole.

(I am incapable of real criticism of Kate Atkinson. I am simply in awe of her work. But I also thought that Rohan Maitzen’s critical review of Life After Life was excellent, and adds even more texture to a very substantial novel.)

Atkinson’s new novel, A God in Ruins, is not a sequel to Life After Life, she explains in her afterword, but “a companion novel.” It’s the life story of Ursula’s brother Teddy in a version of their family’s life that is slightly different than those portrayed in the first novel. Where Ursula died over and over again, Teddy shows a predilection toward survival, miraculously making it through a career as a WW2 bomber pilot. And it is the war upon which his story hinges—an experience both makes him and destroys him. An experiences that does not become less raw as the war itself fades into history, though those around put it away in the past. “You can only go forward,” is a line delivered again and again in the text, a winky joke at the premise of Life After Life, but also blatantly wrong in the matter of narrative because an author is free to put her story together anyway she likes—forward, backward, and round and round in circles. Posing the questions: what if history never entirely goes away? how does it change as we carry it with us? And how is a conventional existence not unlike Ursula’s in reality: “It felt as if he had lived many lifetimes,” Teddy remembers at one point, and who has not felt this way? What is the cumulation of these lives, these selves? What is the thing that connects them?

The reader follows Teddy through his many lives, which are all lived in the same life—through the trauma of his war experiences (whose violence is unflinching but matter-of-fact), the happy early years of his marriage, his tumultuous relationship with his daughter, Viola, and the injustices she inflicts upon her own children, whom Teddy becomes responsible for. As with Life After Life, there is repetition, details slightly changed, conflicting accounts—reading the novel through a similar metaphysical lens as the previous novel is an illuminating experience. And at the end of the story, Atkinson shows her hand with a twist that shall not be revealed, but it’s wonderful and gut-punching, and demonstrates that we’re in the hand of a master writer. As if you ever had any doubts…

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