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August 18, 2014

Ellen in Pieces by Caroline Adderson

ellen-in-piecesCaroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces is the novel we’ve all been waiting for. Me, because I’ve been reading pieces of Ellen in Pieces in journals and magazines for the last few years, and hearing rumours they’d culminate in an actual book, and how often are one’s longings so perfectly satisfied? And you’ve been waiting for this book, because I promise that it’s one of the best you’ll read this year. Devastating, wonderful and brilliant. Because aren’t you always looking for a book to apply such adjectives to? Because I’ve been longing to read this book for years, and when I did, it was even better than I’d hoped.

It’s a novel in stories, or a collection of linked stories, or maybe a novel comprised of fragments, which is more like a life is than most novels I’ve ever read. The first three “chapters,” I’d read previously, and through which I’d become entranced with Adderson’s character, Ellen McGinty, divorced, determined, blundering, flawed, impulsive, hated, and loved. Because it’s rare to encounter such a character in fiction, a woman in the middle years of her life, a woman who is not a type, who has history, is unsure of what to do with her present, who has a body, experiences lust, gets tired, loves her children, cannot stand her children, has friends, fights with her friends, who is herself with such remarkable specificity—”Ellenish” is a term applied at one point in the book, and I knew exactly what they meant. It is rare that a character is so vividly realized—so familiar and yet utterly original at once.

Caroline Adderson pays attention to words, which are as specific as her characters. No one else would write a sentence like, “A melting weakness overtook her and she remembered all those years ago, not here but in Ellen’s North Vancouver kitchen, how he glissaded out of the way so Georgia could set down her platter of blintzes.” A platter of blintzes—has there ever been such a thing? The world reinvented through Adderson’s extraordinary, euphonic vocabulary.

In the first chapter, “I Feel Lousy”, Ellen discover that her younger daughter, not even the disappointing one, is pregnant, which evokes memories of her own troubled past, an accidental pregnancy with her ex-husband, the terrible, awful burden of motherhood, single motherhood in particular, and the lengths that a mother will go to—this mother in particular—for her daughter’s sake. “Poppycock” finds us a few years into the future, Ellen’s estranged father on her doorstep, obviously suffering from some kind of malady and she’s horrified to find him but also bowled over because he wants her, he needs her. She’d assumed her family had written her off altogether since she’d tried to sleep with her brother-in-law at her father’s 50th birthday years before. But the past, just like the present, turns out to be more complicated than that, and the reappearance of her father is a gift that comes with a shadow, a particularly long one.

And if you think that ending is devastating, read “Ellen-Celine, Celine-Ellen” next, about Ellen and her two friends whose relationship was forged at pre-natal class years ago, Ellen all alone because her asshole husband Larry had just abandoned her (the first time). The three stay close in the decades to follow, Ellen and Celine taking a trip to Europe together, which is ill-advised, so say their other friend, Georgia, and also Ellen’s hairdresser, Tony, because Ellen and Celine spend much of their friendship not being able to stand each other, a situated not mitigated by their strong personalities, and also that of the three friends who’d met in pre-natal class, it had been Celine’s baby that died.

Have I conveyed that these stories of death and crisis, all the drama of a life, are also funny? Adderson portrays human behaviour at the intersection of heroism and buffoonery, or else just irritability, to much effect. There’s a subtlety at work here. There are lines that are going to come along and break your heart.

The next few stories are more concerned with the present, pieces fitting more closely together. Ellen begins to find herself—her daughters are settling down, or else calming down; she sells her house; she takes up pottery again; after years of searching, she is learning to be present. She also starts sleeping with a young man who is her daughters’ age, which doesn’t hurt. She thinks she’s beginning to get over her ex-husband, Larry, whose desertion has wrung her heart for years and years.

One chapter is from the point of view of Matt, Ellen’s young lover, who is using Ellen to escape from his own troubled domestic situation. Another by Ellen’s older daughter, Mimi, who has overcome her problems with addiction but is still searching for something to hold onto, and still running from her mother too, whose presence is still vividly felt even from halfway across the country in Toronto, currently in the midst of a garbage strike. (Mimi traces back most of her problems to having once discovered her mother in bed with her grade-five teacher, whom she’d been in love with. Until that point.) Another word in this chapter, “orrery”, which recurs at the end of the story as Mimi rolls down a car window using a similar device. “She saw the moon, the faint stars vying for attention against the glare of human habitation. Pluto was up there somewhere, that small cold outcast planet far away. But there were people who still believed in it, people who wished it well.”

If the story doesn’t devastate you, I promise that the prose will.

At the end of this chapter, Mimi finally gets an inkling of why her mother is who she is, with the aid of a handy Bryan Adams lyric. Maternal ambivalence is a two-way street, and Adderson’s is a gut-wrenching depiction of its flip side. And then in the next chapter, “Mother-eye—the curse cast on every birthing woman, the hex of self-sacrificing empathy. I will see your pain, but you will never see mine.

It’s at the end of this chapter when Ellen is diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’m going to tell you this, tell you this straight: Ellen dies.

I am telling you this because it’s revealed anyway in a tiny sentence on the back of the book (“…we watch Ellen negotiate the last year of her tumultuous life as the pieces of who she is finally come together.”), and in the epigraph as well, and I am telling you this because if you aren’t prepared, it might just be too terrible to take. When was the last time an author dared to kill off the central character in her novel and not even at the end of her novel…

…and of course, Virginia Woolf did, in To the Lighthouse, which I read last month, and which I see as having all kinds of parallels with Adderson’s book, although the two vary greatly in style (and Adderson’s prose is devourable, while Woolf’s must be savoured in measured portions). The notion of “time passes” and that we see a character through the eyes of those around her, the mixture of love and dislike and what lies between which makes up most relationships, and she isn’t even knowable to herself, because who has ever been so pinned down? That she a person whom people assemble around, in all her flaws and fallibility. If she is a solar system, here is the sun, and what happens after the light goes out?

The death scene is sublime, written from the perspective of Ellen’s young grandson, who has his own problems, and when I came to the paragraph break, I put down the book and sobbed and sobbed, and had to go find someone to comfort me—it’s rare that text on a page is ever this affecting. I was devastated, but also amazed at the beauty of the scene, of Adderson’s writing—it was perfect. Masterful.

In the final stories of the book, Ellen’s friends and family gather around her, offering richer perspectives on the scenes we’ve already read. I was especially besotted with “The Something Amendment,” from the perspective of Georgia, who is the third in Ellen’s friendship with Celine. We’ve previously known Georgia through her telephone conversations with Ellen, her jolly husband Gary chiming in from the background. As ever, however, the reality of life is more complicated than can be discerned from down a telephone wire, and Georgia’s own relationship with Ellen is different from even what Ellen suspects, and one of the great achievements of Adderson’s book, I think, is her rich portrayal of decades-long female friendships, the betrayals and compromises that are implicit in such relationships.

If I have to go out of my way to find a criticism of the book, it would be that the Ellen herself is so compelling that the chapters in which she’s at a distance are not as much—the half-grownness of Ellen’s lover is so bland compared to the presence of Ellen in her prime, although the characterization of him at home with his family is vivid, rich and surprising. Or maybe it’s just that I think that Ellen could have done better?

I don’t hate that she died. I wish she hadn’t, but I also didn’t feel like Adderson was using cancer or death as a plot device, to manipulate her characters or (worse!) to manipulate her reader. If its confrontation with cancer and mortality, Ellen in Pieces is a companion to Oh, My Darling by Shaena Lambert, which I read last year (and Lambert is thanked in Adderson’s acknowledgements; they share a publisher). It’s a brave take on things, really, but typical, because the exquisite nature of the entire book comes from Adderson defying her readers’ expectations, surprising you with every line, with every turn of the page.

August 7, 2014

Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken

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

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

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

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

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

August 3, 2014

All Saints in The Globe

all-saintsMy review of K.D. Miller’s wonderful story collection, All Saints, was in the Globe and Mail yesterday. I enjoyed the book so much when I read it in July, and appreciated its vital links to Lynn Coady’s Giller-winning collection, Hellgoing, as well as its Barbara Pymmishness, and the ways in which outright Pymmishness is subverted.

“…All Saints reads like a collision between Pym and Lynn Coady’s recent Hellgoing, whose epigraph is from Larkin’s “Church Going,” a poem which asks the question, “When churches will fall completely out of use/What we shall turn them into.”

The easy answer is condos – their developers are the only ones still banging on All Saints’s door. As with those in Coady’s collection, Miller’s characters are negotiating existence in a world in which the old rules and morality Pym satirized no longer apply.”

Read the whole thing here. 

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.

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"Rereading Fear of Flying" (personal essay) in The Toronto Review of Books
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