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May 24, 2016

The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy

IMG_20160520_132001Would you agree that the very best worst problem in the world to have is the one where you keep reading stunning book after stunning book, but absolutely don’t have the time to write about them? Or especially to write about them with the care and attention each individual book deserves? Or when you read a book with the explicit intention of not actually writing about it, that’s going to be all for pleasure, because this book came out a year ago anyway and was a finalist for a National Book Award and so surely doesn’t need you to blow its horn. And yet you have to? Because to love a book is to talk about a book, and I want everybody to know about this one.

The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy, which I bought after reading Doree Shafrir’s piece at Buzzfeed, Why America is Ready for Novelist Angela Flournoy. And I had a feeling that I was, ready that is. The piece begins: ‘I’m driving through Detroit in a rented Ford sedan with the author Angela Flournoy, and it’s hard not to think that Google Maps is deliberately trying to get us to avoid the city’s ghosts. “It keeps wanting to — I’m just going to say, avoid things. Because this is a city that always wants to put you on a freeway.” ‘ And it was such a fantastic premise for an article, the disembodied GPS voice always threatening to throw the piece off-route, and Detroit to me is such a compelling setting for a story. I have this habit while reading books set in Detroit of doing Google street view searches for places mentioned in the text, and what I find on those streets is always stranger than my imagination—blocks of empty lots, overgrown sidewalks, here and there scattered a house, sometimes upkept, but often abandoned. Burned out shells. It seems strange that this place is real, streets on which actual people live.

Although Yarrow Street, portrayed in Flournoy’s novel, is fictional. And the world that she creates in her novel is one that seems familiar to me. In the Buzzfeed profile, she explains that she consciously didn’t draw attention to the blight in her book, to the things that would seem familiar and unremarkable to anybody who lives in the neighbourhood she writes about. “So imagine if you lived here every day of your life—it becomes part of the landscape. So I try to just be accurate in characterization. And that’s where the challenge is. Because I want other people to see this place like they’ve never seen it. I’m gonna point out the things that are interesting, but I also don’t want to focus too long on things that are not the things that you focus on if you live here.”

Yarrow Street is on the decline. Most of the old neighbours have died and departed, and the Viola Turner, the family matriarch, has gone to stay with in the suburbs with her son Cha-Cha, the eldest of thirteen. And it’s not supposed that she’ll be returning home, although nobody wants to admit it, and in grappling with this idea and the controversial question of just what to do with the family home once their mother goes—the bank has disclosed that it’s worth about four thousand dollars—all the while recovering from an accident that has left him weakened physically as well as psychologically, Cha-Cha is brought close to a breakdown regarding an experience from decades before, a curious encounter with an apparent ghost who tried to kill him. An experience that has haunted him ever since, but in raising the matter with his church-going wife, his dying mother, and his ever-feuding brothers and sisters, Cha-Cha seems to only make things worse. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to all of them, the youngest sister is a gambling addict who’s become homeless, and squatting in the house on Yarrow Street, meanwhile their brother Troy is hatching a plan to shortsell and buy the place out from all of them. And all the time, there’s an undercurrent, the story of their parents at the very beginning, a story none of the children of knew, but has which has haunted all of them in ways they only just perceive. How much is legacy? How much is destiny? And how hard is it to disentangle from all of that and build an actual life for one’s self?

The Turner House deserves all its critical acclaim, and then some. Like Google street view, it’s the kind of world that you can lose yourself in, and well forget about the other one. If you’re on the lookout for a Great American Novel, I can’t think you’d do any better than starting right here.

May 23, 2016

The Most Heartless Town in Canada, by Elaine McCluskey

the-most-heartless-town-in-canadaI’ve been a huge fan of Elaine McCluskey since her short story collection, Valery The GreatI love her merciless humour, the way she packs a sentence, her singular point of view which casts the ordinary in such an extraordinary light, and I love that her unsparing perspective is thoroughly laced with hope and kindness. All these things are on show in her latest novel, The Most Heartless Town in Canada, which begins with a Diane Arbus-inspired image and eight bald eagle carcasses. The town of Myrtle, Nova Scotia, has never been in the national press until this photo which goes out over the wires, and suddenly the boy and girl depicted find themselves as infamous as their town is. The story of the town involves its poultry plant and the bald eagles who’d started feasting on entrails left by plant workers, gathering a popular following of their own before all being brutally slaughtered. The story of the boy and girl is even more complicated that that, and involves a pitiful swim team with big dreams, their overenthusiastic coach, her dodgy boyfriend, and a get-rich-quick scheme. The girl is the photo is Rita Van Loon, an unremarkable swimmer, middling member of the Myrtle Otters. The boy is Hubert Hansen, who has just moved to Myrtle with his mother after the death of his father, and who wanders to the streets of town with his dog and perhaps sees more than anybody. Together, Hubert and Rita tell the real story behind the headlines and think-pieces, disturbing the reader’s notion of small-town stereotypes and the urban/rural divide. The most wonderful thing about McCluskey (and what makes her so funny) are the people she creates, characters who conform to type enough to be familiar but then surprise you just like real people do. Although the problem with this is that sometimes these people forget they’re in a novel and start doing their own thing, which is to say that The Most Heartless Town in Canada can lack cohesion. But that doesn’t undermine the goodness of this book, the delight I took in it. McCluskey’s writing is so good, her characters so richly drawn, and the payoff so great—in heart and humour both—that you’ll be happy to follow these sentences down any avenue, and all over town.

May 15, 2016

A Pillow Book, by Suzanne Buffam

a-pillow-bookIn the notes for Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation, the author writes about the other mothers with whom she found herself “in constant conversation” after she became a mother herself, “and the subject of our conversation was often motherhood itself.” (My experience of these same conversations inspired a book, as I wrote about in my foreword here.) Biss writes, “These mothers helped me understand how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are.” And so it meant something to me that Eula Biss is one of the people acknowledged in A Pillow Book, by Suzanne Buffam (whose first book won the Gerald Lampert Prize and whose second was a finalist for the Griffin Prize), that Biss included Buffum in her own acknowledgements as one of the friends by whose conversations her own writing was fed, to consider that A Pillow Book was born of those conversations from the other side.

Although Buffam’s book is not obviously a companion to On Immunity. At first glance, it has more in common with Jenny Offill’s novel, Dept. of Speculation, a novel in fragments whose form suits the disintegration of the protagonist’s marriage, career and sense of self after she becomes a mother. The novel has been celebrated for its frankness in addressing that kind of disintegration, although my struggle with the book was with its failure to really be a novel. Whereas Buffam’s book is catalogued as poetry, and we’re told within the book itself (as well as on its back cover): “Not a memoir. Not an epic. Not an essay. Not a spell. Not a shopping list. Not a field report. Not a prayer. Not a dream book. Not a novel…” A far more interesting book for its lack of imposition of structural constraint.

While On Immunity is certainly apart from these, a volume of rigorous non-fiction, I think the three books form a fascinating trinity. When I am trying to persuade a reader to pick up Biss’s book (because not everyone is always up for rigorous non-fiction), I tell them that this is the kind of rigorous non-fiction a woman writes when she has a small child. It’s a short book, created of manageable pieces. You could pick up the book and read a section every time you feed your baby, is what I mean. So in a way while it’s decidedly coherent, On Immunity is structurally as fragmented as the others. Furthermore the whole premise is that Biss is trying to make sense of a world that has been exploded to pieces, to reconcile polarities and complexities, to put the pieces back together. Which is what Offill and Buffam are doing as well, and I wonder if together these books suggest a new genre of  mother-lit, books that use structure and content to interrogate and complicate the narratives we’re handed about what motherhood is supposed to be and who mothers are and what we’re supposed to preoccupied with. All three books also blend autobiographical elements with fiction (or non-fiction in the case of Biss) in ways that further complicate the narrative and allow the author a necessary expansion of literary possibility.

(Sarah at Edge of Evening wrote this week about Her 37th Year: An Index, by Suzanne Scanlon, and after I read her post, I immediately ordered the book from the publisher. I have a suspicion that this book too might fit [but not comfortably; there are is nothing comfortable about these books] into the genre I’m talking about.)

Buffam’s collection has been born of a certain panic. The first: she’s unable to sleep. In lieu of counting sheep, she’s making lists, strange connections, pursuing fascinations, and becoming preoccupied with sleep hygiene. Plus pillows. “Among the oldest living pillows in the world today is a smooth block of unpainted wood with a wide crack running through its middle and a shallow indentation on the top,” the book begins. The next fragment of text starts, “F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote lists. Abraham Lincoln took midnight walks…. I put a piece of paper under my pillow at night, and when I could not sleep, I wrote in the dark, wrote Henry David Thoreau, who once spent a fortnight in a roofless cabin with his head on a pillow of bricks.”

Lists such as, “Books I’d Like to Read Someday,” “Dream Jobs” (the fragment above which is a piece beginning, “Later that fall in West Orange, New Jersey, Thomas Edison staged the first pillow fight ever recorded on film.”), “Unendurable” (“Dinner with donors./ Dreadlocks on a WASP.”), and “Dubious Doctors” (“Dr. Feelgood/ Dr. Doolittle/ Dr. Spock../Dr. Pepper./ Dr. Dre.”), “Moustaches A to Z” (Anwar Sedat and Burt Reynolds to Yosemite Sam and Zorba the Greek).

The fragments are divided by small circles whose shadings progress in the way of the lunar cycle (as in the cover of the book). And amidst all these other curiosities are dispatches (though “not a dispatch” is probably also true) from the field of motherhood, the narrator’s young daughter referred to as “Her Majesty:

“No luck with the potty today I record in my little blue pillow book. No interest, either, in wearing the new Hello Kitty underwear I bought last week at Target, though Her Majesty did kiss each pair as we removed them from the shiny plastic packaging.”

“Was Shonagon bored? Was she lonely?” Buffum’s narrator wonders of the Japanese author of the first Pillow Book, another object of fascination. We see her husband meeting with a student to discuss her paper on Spinoza: “From the hovering basket of a hot-air balloon in our front yard…the lift off into a swirling swarm of downy flakes, leaving me behind with Her Majesty in the kitchen…” Early in the book, moons before, she recalls sharing sushi “with a famous aging editor in New York.” When he learns she has no children (yet), he tells her, “Good…You’ll be finished as a writer if you do.”

As I said, this is a book that is born of panic.

And it’s fascinating, so readable. It got to the point where I had to put my bookmark onto the following page without turning it over because if I hadn’t, I would have read the page, devouring the whole book in a sitting, when it felt so good just to eke it out, a few pages before bedtime. A book truly to savour. Because the contents are so strange and interesting, ever surprising, and the language is beautiful. I kept reading parts out loud to my husband, and it was then that the poetry of the prose, Buffam’s attention to language was most clear, with subtle rhymes, alliteration. A sense of rhythm. A sense of humour most of all.

April 20, 2016

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

on-the-shores-of-darkness-there-is-lightEver since 1964, writers whose protagonists are eleven-year-old girls called Harriet have been taking a serious chance on things. How can one actually pull that off that kind of literary homage? But Cordelia Strube, whose many books include the 2010 Giller-nominated novel Lemon (which was one of my favourite books that year) has absolutely pulled it off. Her Harriet, in On the Shores of Darkness There is Light, is a many-splendored, singular creation, and the novel goes and goes and never falters.

Harriet lives in an apartment building called the Shangrila, once a luxury high-rise but now a place housing mostly downtrodden seniors and her family since they lost their home in the 2008 economic downturn. Her mother is trying to keep them afloat through under-the-table bookkeeping, with no help from Gennady, her broke criminal lawyer boyfriend in Crocs, or Harriet’s father Trent, avid cyclist who lives with Uma who he met at the farmer’s market and who is currently in the middle of an IVF cycle. And then there is Irwin, Harriet’s five-year-old brother who has hydrocephalous and whose traumatic entrance to the world brought forth the end of Harriet’s parents’ marriage and all semblances of stability in her life. His health remains perilous, with frequent seizures and hospital visits, ever a source of anxiety and preoccupation for their mother, leaving Harriet with a preponderance of freedom that she exploits for her own devices.

Dumpster-diving for materials for her found art projects, charging her elderly neighbours for runs to the convenience store, and hanging out with her teenage neighbour, Darcy, and losing her scattered grandmother at the Scarborough Town Centre, Harriet has her own agenda, which ultimately involves her dream of escaping it all and getting away to a rural retreat far away in Algonquin Park, living alone by a lake and painting much like Tom Thomson did. A playwright, Strube has an ear for dialogue, and the novel is enlivened by conversation by the people all around Harriet, from confused senior citizens to forthright angry teens, and we see all the information contained within these throwaway lines being filtered through Harriet’s precocious but still eleven-year-old brain and how they come to inform her view of the world. The connections she makes between her father’s obsession with cycling and her stepmother’s IVF cycle, for example, or how a diatribe from the malicious Gennady becomes the title of a sculpture she creates called “The Leopard Who Changed Her Spots.” In a subtle fashion, this is very much a novel that is preoccupied with language, by words, and the puzzles of what things really mean.

As in her previous work, Strube is unafraid to portray adults as a ragtag collection of lost souls and idiots. (This is another feature this novel shares with the collected works of Louise Fitzhugh.) That such folks are responsible for the care of vulnerable people is always a terrifying thing for those people to discover, and On the Shores of Darkness… is about that loss of innocence, the realization that none of us are really ever safe, and that our parents are as vulnerable as we are. “I want you to get better, but I don’t want to be blamed,” admits Harriet’s mother at one point regarding her son’s unhappiness, which is indicative of every adult’s failure in this book to take responsibility for his or her own actions, for their own life. “All of this has been very hard on me,” so say the grown-ups in relation to their children’s hardships, over and over again.

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

There is a twist two thirds of the way into the novel that is absolutely devastating and potentially crazy-making, but Strube manages to make the final section work with the introduction of a new character, a young girl who underlines the novel’s Fitzhugh ties  by her determination to be a detective, carrying a magnifying glass and clues jotted in a notebook even. And while the novel veers dangerously toward sentimentality as it heads to its conclusion, Strube shows just enough restraint, and manages an impeccable ending, one that brings its pieces together, steady as the beat of a heart.

April 6, 2016

Escape Plans, by Teri Vlassopoulos

escape-plansBack in November, I went to the launch for Teri Vlassopoulos’s novel, Escape Plans and bought the book with great anticipation, but then I got pneumonia not long after and the book got lost inside a month of illness, a month during which Escape Plans received a short review in The Globe and Mail, which is always a good thing. So I should have known then that when I finally picked up on the book on Friday that I was in for something excellent, a weekend of really wonderful reading. I finished the book on Sunday night in the bathtub, which was kind of fitting in a small-scale way. And I enjoyed it so completely.

We learn in the prologue that one of our three narrators, Niko, drowned in the Aegean Sea, this information disclosed by his daughter Zoe who is recalling how she learned of her father’s death, returning home from swim practice, the smell of chlorine, her wet bathing suit in a heap on the floor. And then the novel proper begins, Niko’s first sentence, “I’ve always been good at leaving,” and telling the story about how he left his family in Toronto and returned to his native Greece to work for an ailing shipping company that had once belonged to his uncle and grandparents. Zoe’s storyline begins years after the prologue, as she moves to Montreal for university and embarks on her first real love affair. And finally, we meet Zoe’s mother Anna, Niko’s wife, who is travelling to Paris with her partner, this storyline contemporaneous with Zoe’s, and Anna is unsure about the terms of her relationship, the future, and also worried about her daughter back home.

It’s a fascinating structure, in particular that one of the narrators is (seemingly) a dead man, these passages narrated by a ghost. Vlassopoulos does a wonderful job creating suspense as his story progresses, and we want to find out what happens to him, and it seems impossible that he could actually die, so alive are his words on the page. Just as effective are the ways that Vlassopoulos have the members of this broken family, disparate figures, each of them, curiously echoing one another, and connected in ways that only the reader is privy to. The inspiration for this structure is the mythological Graeae, three sisters who shared a single eye (which in this case is the novel’s first-person narrative, a single I). The Graeae enter into the story via poetry written by Niko’s mother, who also wrote about a historical figure who shares a name with a turtle belonging to Niko’s next-door neighbours in Athens….by which I mean that this is a novel loaded with freight (also fitting). There’s nothing incidental, even if Zoe’s haphazard road trip to New York City and then Niagara Falls kind of seems that way, even in her own mind. And each character is laden with their own history—Zoe with the tragedy of her father’s death, Niko’s legacy from his literary parents, and Anna’s own childhood growing up with her geologist father in Northern Ontario. Vlassopoulos’s characters are (sometimes unknowingly) such products of the people they’ve come from, and the places they’ve been, and she shows how experience and inheritance comes with its own DNA, and so much of it is inescapable. (There is also a Bonnie and Clyde reference near the end that’s exquisite, that their doomed outcome was never the point.)

While there’s nothing showy about Escape Plans, and getting used to the structure takes a few chapters, eventually the deftness of the novel’s construction becomes overwhelming, and I finished the book asking myself, “How did she do that?” It’s the kind of book that I want to return to again, to discover connections (odds and omens) that I wasn’t savvy enough to pick up on the first time.

March 20, 2016

Becoming Lin, by Tricia Dower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 26, 2016

We Oughta Know, by Andrea Warner


The very first real concert I went to (i.e. not with my dad) was to see Sarah McLachlan on tour for Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, a CD I’d recently purchased from Columbia House for a penny. This was in grade nine, I think, 1993 or 1994, with my best friends Britt and Jennie. Britt’s dad drove us there, to the theatre in Lindsay, ON, where we were part of the amazing, intimate performance, and I saw a girl with dreadlocks who kind of looked like a boy, which left me flummoxed. There is a connection, I think, between having seen Sarah McLachlan, powerful and awesome at her piano, on the guitar, and that Britt and I would spend all of high school performing at talent shows and low-rent concerts playing pop covers on our acoustic guitars, singing in harmony. We really took it for granted, all those amazing women who articulated our feelings so well, whose lyrics we scrawled in our scrapbooks. It was the times we were living in. It seemed inevitable that we’d see Sarah McLachlan against six years later at a much larger venue, us sitting high up and far away on the grass, watching her perform with Sheryl Crow, Deborah Cox. I think the Dixie Chicks were there. Biff Naked on a side stage. Women in songs were in the ascendence. “Women in Songs” was the name of a popular CD series here in Canada in the last few years of the decade, and that the collections were feminist or even that these were women at all seemed to use kind of incidental as we drove down the main street in our town singing along with Natalie Imbruglia as she bared her heart with “Torn.”

We-Oughta-Know-Cover-300-AdjustedIn her book, We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music, Andrea Warner articulates that whole scene, and the remarkable fact that four Canadian women were leading the charge of women in song: Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan, Shania Twain, and Alanis Morissette. These four women too are (along with Diana Krall) are the only Canadians on Canada’s best-selling artists lists, coming in above the Beatles. And even more remarkably, they all made their mark during a five year period in the mid-1990s. What was going on exactly, Warner wonders? How did they do it?

Dion, McLachlan, Twain and Morrisette are not musicians usually linked together, more often viewed in terms of their differences—the good girls and the bad ones, the authentic musicians versus the manufactured ones. Warner makes the interesting point that as a teenager, she regarded these women as she regarded the members of The Babysitters Club, definitive types, not allowing for complexity of character. Making assumptions: how could Dion with her entrepreneurial skills be a Feminist with all her love schlock, and the same with Twain and her bared midriffs? Exhibiting the same narrow-mindedness that led critics to be baffled by Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” (which, incidentally, was the only album my husband and I ended up with two copies of when our CD collections merged):

‘The sweetness of “Head Over Feet,” the sensitive sprawl of “Mary Jane,” and the quirky landscape of “Ironic” were baffling to the easily confused, particularly to those who were committed to painting Morissette as a screaming, seething ball of rage. How can she be angry but so gentle here? Well, how can you have both a right hand and a left hand? It’s simple, provided you’re not someone who hates women. People contain multitudes and women are people; therefore women contain multitudes.’

In her book, Warner takes us track by track through the albums that rocketed these women to stardom, and also examines her own feelings toward them and how coming to admire Dion and Twain for their talent and hard work is a part of her coming to terms with her own notions of feminism. She also takes inspiration from 90s music heroines and blends the personal in with her cultural analysis, discussing how her parents’ separation and own ideas of love and marriage influenced her perspective on Dion’s music, or how McLachlan’s devastating Rarities, B-Sides and Other Stuff (which I always used to put on when I was at my most angst-full, just to feed the pain) intersects with her grief around her father’s death. She also examines how these four women were regarded by the music industry, by the media, the sexism and stereotypes and the system that is set up so that women are unable to succeed, for example, the rule against playing two songs by women in a row on the radio, which is what galvanized Sarah McLachlan to start The Lilith Fair to show that women aren’t merely to be pitted against each other, but can stand together. Fascinating too to consider the stupid Lilith Fair backlash, that it was reverse sexism. I remember being gibed about “lesbians” by certain morons in my company at the time who knew I was going to the concert, as though most rock festivals are not enormous cockfests (which are distinct from “enormous-cock fests”)  and why don’t we ever talk about that?

Warner is a music critic for CBC Music and Exclaim, and a warm, engaging writer who celebrates the power of girls and women and their voices, and critiques the culture that made all this happen. An appendix in We Oughta Know includes a long list of other Canadian female acts who made their mark throughout the 1990s—Alannah Myles, Amanda Marshall, Jann Arden, and others—making clear that the four women spotlighted in her book are not merely some freak phenomena.

“The ’90s were a remarkable decade for girls like me, and ultimately, the woman we would become. When you come of age in a time when women have voices, take up space, are visible creators and entrepreneurs, it never dawns on you that silence is the rule and these women, your idols, are the exception.”

February 10, 2016

Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, by Kathy Page

frankieMy first proper job after graduating from university was temping as admin staff for a social services agency in the English Midlands, and it was a job that blew my mind in terms of what it taught me about the possibilities of narrative. My job required me type out reams of notes scrawled on yellow notepads and other paper scraps, and render these into a coherent story, and it was fascinating. I worked in Fostering and Adoption and wrote up family trees and histories for families pursuing these avenues, and then moved into Children and Families and supported social workers with overflowing caseloads working to protect vulnerable children and/from their parents (who were often unfathomably idiotic—or fathomably so; indeed, there was an entire basement room with paper files stacked to the ceiling of cases that stretched back generations).

I had this job concurrent to the Victoria Climbié murder inquiry, which delved into the systematic failure to protect a small girl who had been tortured and murdered by her guardians. The details of this failure are shocking, and yet they weren’t altogether: I’d seen how resources were scarce, how social workers were often impossibly tasked, and wondered too how far the social safety net would have to stretch in order to account for every possibility of unthinkable human evil. “The ends and edges of what [people] could have done or could do,” which is a line from Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, by Kathy Page.

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

A novel kind of like those penned by Frank Styne who lives next door to her, though they’ve barely met, and she’s never heard of his novels. Styne is a recluse, done in by a facial deformity and a lifelong struggle with sexual dysfunction, but now his latest book has been nominated for a major award and he’s going to have the press on his doorstep. Which drives him to become embroiled in a revenge plot of his own, sadistic fantasies that outdo any possibilities that have turned up so far in his books.

What impact do Frank Styne’s horror novels have upon the world? Is the impact more or less than the effect of Annie Purvis’s attempts to care for clients such as Liz Meredith and her son? Does Liz really require Annie Purvis’s meddling? And Page does such a terrific job of creating sympathy for each of her characters that we’re gunning for Liz, that we understand why she doesn’t take her son to a clinic after his foot is injured—because it’s true that they’d only take him away from her. And we know too that “they” is a group of people around a table, Annie Purvis and her associates, and they’re making their own gambles about the ends and edges of narrative possibility. That Annie Purvis has struggles of her own, a husband who resents the demands of her job. That all these people in close proximity affect each other in ways that no one can predict and that could never be plotted on a graph. That, contrary to Mrs. Thatcher’s assertion, there is such a thing as society after all, but what it is isn’t always pretty.

Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is dark and funny, painful and uplifting, marvellously satirical but never cynical, and thoroughly invested with good faith. Kathy Page is a marvel. This is the very best book that I’ve read in ages, and if I read another half as good in the next few months, that will constitute an extraordinary literary year.

November 19, 2015

My review of Split, by Libby Crewman

splitMy first professional book review was of Libby Crewman’s The Darren Effect in Canadian Notes & Queries in 2008. It was a good book, but a messy one, and I suspect my review probably achieved a similar effect, which sadly was not an aesthetic statement, but was just me figuring out my way. But it also meant that I was looking forward to Crewman’s follow-up, Split, which was published by Goose Lane Editions in September. I read the novel twice as summer turned into fall, and it’s a story that has stayed with me since, in its oddness and perplexities, its curious sideways appeal, but also in the vivid moments that Creelman so stunningly evokes.

A remarkable feature of Split, Libby Creelman’s second novel (after 2008’s The Darren Effect; she is also author of the acclaimed 2000 story collection, Walking in Paradise) is that it isn’t split. Whereas Creelman’s previous book was an impressive tangle of multiple storylines suggesting this short story writer was still finding her way into a different literary milieu, Split—for the most part taut, controlled and smartly plotted—signals Creelman’s arrival proper as a novelist. This new book is an ambitious, assured and most accomplished whole.


This wholeness is doubly (ha!) impressive considering the novel’s movement between two moments in time—2008 on the eve of both Barack Obama’s first election victory and widespread economic meltdown, and during the hot summer of 1975, the year after Nixon’s resignation and just months after the last American troops were removed from Vietnam. The former is the novel’s present day, during which Pilgrim Wheeler returns to her hometown in rural Massachusetts to find her childhood world drastically changed, and must finally reconcile with a tragedy that had wrenched her family apart decades before.

Read the rest of my review at The Rusty Toque!

November 15, 2015

Heyday, by Marnie Woodrow

heyday“It had something to do with Mary Pickford. With beauty. With the Figure 8 ride on a hot June day at just the right moment in time.”

Heyday is the first novel by Marnie Woodrow since the acclaimed Spelling Mississippi more than a decade ago. It’s a book that artfully weaves two stories, one in the present day as Joss mourns the loss of her longtime partner, Bianca, to whom she was never fully committed, and the other about two young women, Bette and Freddy, who meet one day on a roller coaster in 1909. And what connects these stories both is the Toronto Islands, peaceful Ward’s Island where Joss lives alone now but in her grief feels smothered by the attentions of the close-knit island community, and Hanlan’s Point on the other side, which in 1909 was a bustling amusement park, called “Canada’s Coney Island,” and where Freddy and Bette encounter each other for the very first time.

Bette is a single-rider, unnerved by the boy who takes the seat beside her as the roller coaster ride begins, and then intrigued as he whips off his hat to reveal a shock of blonde hair—the boy’s a girl after all. And a friendship begins between them, cultivated over a mutual love of swoops and turns, twists and plummets. Although the girls are worlds apart otherwise. Bette is the daughter of upper-class parents, her father an ardent spiritualist, her mother busy with campaigning for woman’s suffrage, and both parents too involved in their own affairs to pay sufficient attention to their youngest daughter who is mourning the recent loss of her beloved grandmother. Their lack of attention means that she’s able to escape from the confines of home during that summer, however, and make her way across the harbour to Hanlans, where she spends her time becoming utterly bewitched by the charismatic Freddy who works as a ticket-taker in the movie theatre. Although Freddy has secrets of her own, running from a dangerous past that is never far behind her. And as affection between the two girls grows—as they make plans for a future together, daring to consider running away together to New York City, to the actual Coney Island—it becomes clear to Freddy that their relationship might be putting Bette’s life in peril. But does she dare risk it? Or must she sacrifice their friendship to ensure her friend does not become snarled up in her own torrid past?

The novel’s historical detail is evocatively realized, and uncompromising in its sense of immediacy and richness of atmosphere. The sections of Heyday (from the respective perspectives of Bette, Freddy, and Joss) flow together naturally, the past and present timeline subtly connecting with small details. Though how the two sections relate beyond geography is not clear until the novel’s end when it becomes clear that one story might just be a figment of the other. But the spell Woodrow casts is so magnificently done that it doesn’t occur to the reader even to mind this.

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