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Pickle Me This

June 10, 2021

Refreshing

Cheri DiNovo, a former Ontario MPP, and retired Canadian Senator Nancy Ruth make the most interesting literary and political companions in recent books The Queer Evangelist (DiNovo’s new autobiography) and The Unconventional Nancy Ruth (an authorized biography written by Ramona Lumpkin). Both daughters of Toronto but raised in classes that were divided by stratospheres, each woman has made her career out of embracing seeming contradictions, putting principles ahead of political loyalties, and both identify as LGBTQ (DiNovo is bisexual; Ruth is a lesbian). DiNovo may be a proud socialist and Ruth a longtime conservative, but both women have also found a place for themselves within the the Ministry of the United Church of Canada…though within that institution each would prove herself ahead of her time.

I devoured DiNovo’s memoir in two days after reading an article in the Toronto Star about how she wished to show in her book that change is possible and the fight is worth it. Perhaps unsurprising for someone whose true calling is writing sermons, DiNovo is a wonderful storyteller whose easy, informal sentences make for reading that’s both breezy and inspiring at once. She tells the story of her traumatic childhood, of living on the streets as a teenage drug dealer, of turning her life around after support from a shelter helped her return to education, and then how she went from being a teenage Trotskyist to running her own headhunting firm during the 1980s’ excesses. Her corporate success, however, coupled with its inverse as the 1990s arrived and the economy spilled into recession, led her to spiritual questioning whose answers she eventually began to find in the United Church, where she was ordained as a Minister in 1995. After serving a rural parish, she began to work at an inner-city church in Toronto, helping turn the church’s future around by strengthening its connection to the surrounding community. She performed the first same-sex marriage in Canada in 2001. In 2006, she was elected as MPP for Parkdale-High Park in Toronto, a position she would serve in until 2018.

I reviewed the biography of Ruth for Quill and Quire, and you can read my piece right here. Ruth’s childhood was not the hardscrabble experience of DiNovo, but it was difficult and traumatic in its own way, and she faced her own struggles to find her place in the world, though she always had her family fortunes to fall back on. After inheriting her family money, Ruth devotes herself to philanthropy, supporting causes promoting women’s empowerment. She runs for office twice for the Conservative party, but is both times defeated. In 2005, however, she was appointed to the Canadian Senate, where she used her power from within as she always had—to advocate and agitate for progressive change.

What I find most refreshing about both women is the ways that they managed to get things done by reaching across party lines. In the Ruth bio, it’s noted that she donated to the leadership campaign of Ontario Liberal Lyn McLeod when she herself was a candidate for the Progressive Conservative Party, because she wanted to see women in positions of power everywhere. DiNovo was able to work with members of other parties to get significant bills passed in the Ontario legislature even when the NDP was in a third-party position. Both DiNovo and Ruth are far more interested in enacting policy change to improve the lives of vulnerable people than adhering to a party line, or ensuring an election win—and in their doggedness, they really do prove that real change is possible.

June 9, 2021

The Souvenir Museum, by Elizabeth McCracken

There is always something so delightfully skewed by Elizabeth McCracken’s literary world, which is populated by ventriloquists and people who play villainesses on children’s TV programs, with runaways and stowaways, and that voice on late night radio dispensing love advice. Literally uncanny, by which I mean that in her latest story collection,The Souvenir Museum, nobody is at home . A distant son takes his widower father on holiday to Scotland. A heartbroken woman checks into a hotel to drink her feelings, and narrowly avoids drowning in someone else’s bathtub. The TV villainess spends New Years with her brother in Rotterdam. A single mother takes her young son to Denmark to find an old flame to give him a watch her father had left him. A mother, the one character who never goes anywhere, is rendered homeless all the same when she loses her entire family. An older gay man takes his young son on a lazy river while his partner takes a break at the bar, and considers the unlikely course of his life. And speaking of unlikely courses, a mother buys her daughter the doll that she’s always wanted (a Baby Alive!) except that her daughter is grown up, expecting her first child, a recovered addict, and alive, while the child of a long-ago friend whose life had once run parallel to hers…is not. This story is called “A Walk Through the Human Heart,” its title referring to a scene set in a science museum, but the title is also an apt description of what it feels like to be reading this book, the exquisite agony of being alive, of being loved, of being left, and bereft.

Stories of Sadie and Jack weave their way among the others, starting near the beginning of their relationship as American Sadie meets her eccentric English relatives at Jack’s sister wedding in the middle-of-nowhere Ireland, and we see teenage Jack in London, later they spend time with Sadie’s mother, and these stories show the baggage that family brings with it, baggage that’s inextricably bound up with stories, some of them true, some of them otherwise. That to love is always, one day, to lose, but we embark on these journeys of a lifetime anyway, and yes, if we’re lucky, there are souvenirs.

These stories, their sentences—they’re disorientating (which is the nature of travel, of course). But they’re also strikingly evocative, marvellously descriptive—but sometimes too much? How can hair be “brown marcel”? Marcel means curly, I think? These are not images you breeze over. I’m imagining Elizabeth McCracken’s mind as a treasure trove of strange words and rituals and people and ideas, the world as we know it rendered in a funhouse mirror, strange and distorted, which is also to say just as it is.

May 27, 2021

My Spring Obsession: Katherine Heiny

It started in February when I signed up for an online event celebrating Laurie Colwin, whose book Happy All The Time was appearing in a new edition with a foreword by Katherine Heiny. Heiny was also co-hosting the event, which was a pleasure to “attend” and there was a reference to her work being more than a little Colwin-esque. So I ordered her first novel Standard Deviation from the library. And I loved it. I loved it SO MUCH. I loved it in a where-have-you-been-all-my-life, I-ought-to-recommend-this-book-to-everybody-I-know kind of sense. It was the book that my husband demanded he would get to read right after I was finished with it, because he wanted to know what all the laughing was about, and then I got to listen to him laughing about it too.

Standard Deviation, like Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, like everything by Colwin, is a comic novel that break all the rules of novel-writing and is definitely the kind of book in which nothing much happens and yet everything does. Stories that fixate on minutiae and room decor and thread counts, and everybody is more than a little bit neurotic. Standard Deviation is a novel narrated by Graham, who is married to Audra, his second wife, who never stops talking and is on intimate terms with everybody they encounter. They have a son with Aspergers whose struggles are depicted poignantly but also hilariously—and what a balance is that. This is the most true-to-love depiction of the heartaches of parental love that I’ve ever encountered in a book, and it’s just the most remarkable combination of thoroughly absurd and utterly mundane. I could have read this book forever, Graham as a straight man casting Audra in the most compelling light, though he’s having his own complicated experience as he has a run-in with his first wife, Elspeth, on whom who cheated with Audra, and Elspeth is Audra’s polar opposite in every single way, and because Audra is Audra, she insists that they all get together, and (shockingly) it all doesn’t run so smoothly. Add to the mix their son Matthew’s origami club and its ensuing drama, and you’ve got a family comedy like nothing else you’ve read before…except maybe in Laurie Colwin.

I think maybe if I hadn’t had my mind blown by Standard Deviation, I would have been more ecstatic about her just-released novel Early Morning Riser, which has the same tone as the first novel but is perhaps lacking its tartness. The secondary characters aren’t as realized in this novel, and we encounter them at the beginning of their connection instead of in the midst of a long history which renders the story a little more shallow. Taking place over two decades too instead of the very focused narrative of Standard Deviation, it’s just too sprawling and meandering in terms of plot. But I still really enjoyed it, and bought a copy for my daughter’s Grade 2 teacher because Jane, the main character in the book, is a Grade 2 teacher, who rolls into town and finds love with Duncan, who’s a great guy but, unfortunately (and maybe consequently) has been intimately involved with every woman they encounter in their life together, which makes things a bit awkward for Jane, plus he has his own first wife, and other connections make their life together unnecessarily complicated and Jane is just not sure how she feels about having her domestic life be so crowded…

It was not a great novel by traditional standards, but it was a good novel, and that it was distinctly a Katherine Heiny novel—in terms of humour, character, description—made it a novel that’s thoroughly worth reading. Every since I read her books, my own fiction has included characters who are just a little less ordinary, prone to rashes and strange outbursts. Somebody will be walking into a room, and why not decide that they’re carrying a giant sombrero, you know? It’s a wonderful, inspiring kind of license, to write characters who are outside the ordinary, and I’m really enjoying playing with that.

And I’m also looking forward to finally reading her very first book, the short story collection Single, Carefree, Mellow, whose title story I’m most intrigued by and which I never would have picked up every because these are three adjectives that describe somebody so different from me that I feel like store alarms might go off if I tried to buy it. But I am going to buy it now, because I’m most certain that Katherine Heiny’s writing is meant for me.

May 19, 2021

A Lethal Lesson, by Iona Whishaw

To be reading a new Lane Winslow book is one of my favourite states of being, and the best thing about this series, whose eighth and latest instalment is A Lethal Lesson, is that it just keeps getting better. A little out of season this time—the story is set at Christmas and one suspects that it might have come out last fall in an alternate universe in which contagion doesn’t roam the land. But oh, still a treat to be back in King’s Cove, whose vicar turns up at the Christmas Even gathering at the end of the book and reports that his flock at King’s Cove is the most exciting of all his parishioners, “with your resident detective Miss Winslow…and the inspector established here now, and murderers and would-be murderers turning up all the time. Better than a fictional English village!”

And it’s true! Whishaw’s story has a meta-charm as her characters compare the situations unfolding around them to what might be expected to happen within the pages of a book. The situation here being a rather curious one—the outgoing school teacher has been found with a head injury, her cottage ransacked, and the incoming teacher has disappeared altogether. Does one of the women have something to fear from her past—or even both of them? And more importantly—who is going to preside over the school in the meantime before the case is solved? Why, Lane Winslow, of course, with her Oxford education, and while she doesn’t have much experience of children herself, she’s surprised to find how inspiring she finds their company, which surely pleases her new husband, Inspector Darling, who’s putting out some not subtle suggestions that he’s interested in them having children of their own.

I absolutely love the modern sensibility of these novels, of their feminism, sense of justice, their anti-racism, their progressiveness, which somehow never seems out of place in a tiny BC hamlet in 1948. Darling proposes, “Let’s say she displayed what some might have termed dubious morals and incited locals…” to which Lane gently corrects him, “No, let’s not say that. We are making her responsible for being harassed, very unfair under any circumstances…” But it’s never preachy or pedantic, and Whishaw continues to use her murder mysteries to explore the limitations on women’s lives and freedom that were contemporary to the period, and which are not yet so far away in the rear view mirror.


May 13, 2021

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, by Paula Byrne

I…don’t like big books. They’re heavy to hold, don’t fit in my purse, and I’ve just got no time for that, for the most part. It just doesn’t groove with the pace of my life, and so at 612 pages, I was intimidated by The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, Paula Byrne’s biography of novelist, the first since a 1990 biography by Pym’s friend and literary executor Hazel Holt which might have revealed fewer insights that it could have out of respect for Pym herself, who’d died of cancer in 1980.

But reader, I read it in two days. Granted, these were two days I’d set aside especially for it, turning off my wifi and accompanying social media so all my attention could be focussed on the task at hand, which was giving my poor wrists the support they needed to hold Byrne’s biography up to my eyes. But it helped that Byrne had divided her book into short and action-packed chapters in the style of 18th century novels like Moll Flanders, chapters with titles such as “In which our Heroine is born in Oswestry,” “In which Miss Pym returns to Oxford,” and so on to “In which our Heroine goes to Germany for the third time and sleeps with her Nazi.”

TURN BACK, BARBARA! was what the residents of my household took to shouting as I kept them abreast of developments in the narrative, such as when Barbara was having an affair with her friend’s father, various gay men, her roommate’s estranged husband, and yes, a literal Nazi. Barbara Pym was an extraordinary person, a brilliant novelist, and had comically terrible judgment when it came to men (and 1930s’ political regimes). Although it occurs to me that her terrible judgment may have been what made her such a wonderful novelist, her ability to imagine her characters into the impossible situations she’d often encountered herself. She took the tragedies (and absurdities) of her own life and spun them into literary (and comic) gold.

Barbara Pym was a fascinating woman—a student at Oxford in the 1930s, she was an enthusiastic participant in sexual relationships, and imagined herself into all kinds of romantic dramas, her particular obsession with one lover occupying her for the rest of her life. She was very drawn to Germany in the 1930s, displaying that typical judgment I’ve always mentioned, but this did not persist into wartime, where she would serve with the WRENs in Naples. After the war, she was hired as an editor for an academic journal in anthropology, which served as fodder for her work (oh my gosh, her treatment of office dynamics and whose job it is to put the kettle on and how is SO SPOT ON) but also paid her a pittance. Being a novelist was most fundamental to her identity out of everything else she did—her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, was published in 1950. She’d been working on the novel since her Oxford days.

Throughout the 1950s, she published five books, her sixth appearing in 1961. And after this, her new work was not accepted by her publisher, nor by any another. The fashions were changing, and so was the publishing industry (everyone thought the industry was just as dire then as they have ever since), and Pym’s understated humour and wry old-fashioned sensibility had not kept up to date, it was said. So she would toil in the wilderness, encouraged by her excellent friend Philip Larkin, and these years were hard ones for her—money was a struggle, she was depressed by romantic relationships that didn’t pan out, she encountered health struggles, and felt left behind by the literary scene.

And then everything turned around—in 1977, Pym was mentioned (twice!) in a Times Literary Supplement list of underrated writers. All of a sudden, the newspapers and radio were calling. Her publisher wanted to put her back into print, she relished in rejecting them this time, new works coming out with MacMillan, her earlier books re-released. Her next novel, Quartet in Autumn, was nominated for the Booker Prize. Pym would be celebrated before her death at the age of 66, which gives this life the happy ending her biography’s reader longs for. The kind of triumph that doesn’t always happen in life itself, and seems more fitting for a novel instead (but then we’d call the conclusion a little bit pat).

Byrne refreshes one’s perception of Pym in this biography, whose title and form is entirely suited to a life that wasn’t quiet at all, and which pushed the margins in all kinds of ways. She also shows the way that Pym’s work was a reflection of its times, and changed along with the fashions, responding to the world around her, even though many of her preoccupations (spinsters and curates especially) remained the same.

May 10, 2021

Big Reader, by Susan Olding

Susan Olding’s essay collection, Big Reader, is a bibliophile’s delight. The follow-up to her 2008 collection Pathologies affirms should be on the radar of all book-loving people whose hearts skip a beat at the sight of Natalie Olsen’s marbled cover art, a riff on vintage endpapers. But then of course if you look closely, you will notice that the design is less abstract than it first appears, and the marble is a river, and leaves are floating on its surface, and a leaf can be the page of a book or something growing on a tree, to be gathered with a rake when it eventually flutters to the ground, and there’s even an essay on rakes, as in the garden tool and the 18-century series of engravings by William Hogarth “A Rake’s Progress.” Mutability is a theme of, well, life itself, as Olding’s collection attests.

She writes about Anna Karenina and her own affair in a fabulous essay on rereading. She reflects on infertility at Keats’ house. (I just finished reading Barbara Pym’s new biography, which also includes a scene at Keats’ house, a tragic scene in which Pym occurs in a cameo role in one of her novels. It seems like no one has a lot of fun at Keats’ house.) Fairy tail tropes and stepmothering in her essay “Wicked,” which first appeared in the essay collection The M Word, which I edited in 2014. Inspired by Woolf, she writes of “Library Haunting.” On how her mother’s reading life changed as the result of her vision loss. About reading The Golden Notebook on a resort vacation to Hawaii, kind of incongruous. In “Another Writers Beginnings,” which is a response to Eudora Welty and seems in conversation (or at least keeping rhythm) with Joan Didion circa Slouching Toward Babylon, Olding writes a take on self-doubt that I found against the grain of our current moment and also absolutely refreshing—that our self-doubt can serve us as writers. Who would we be without it?

I’d read in a previous review that Oldings essays on Toronto during the AIDs crisis (and the Don River) and another on blood types seem incongruous with the collection’s theme of books and reading, but they actually worked for me, for the way that Olding reads the landscape like a story in the former, and the body in the latter, always searching for signs. She writes about working at a bookstore in downtown Toronto, and how she used to read at the counter, and the oversized atlas kept getting stolen on her watch. Throughout the whole book, she writes about a refusal to conform, to fall into line, to veer into the unexpected, to be one thing and then quite another. “I needed to wander. I wanted to follow a string of words.”

May 7, 2021

Speak, Silence, by Kim Echlin

It’s a difficult sell, Kim Echlin’s novel Speak, Silence, about the International Criminal Court Trials after the Yugoslavian wars that for the first time prosecuted rape during wartime as a crime against humanity. I will admit that I might not have picked it up were I not given the opportunity to interview Echlin for a live book event this week, but am I ever glad I did. The rare kind of novel that has been engaged the way of nonfiction, pausing in my reading to leap down internet rabbit holes and learn about parts of history of which I’d had absolutely no idea (the history of how Bosnians became predominantly Muslim—it’s fascinating!) and I kept turning to my husband and asking myself, “Did you know….?”

Unfortunately the question usually ended with a detail like, “that women were kept imprisoned, raped and tortured, and intentionally made pregnant with genocide as the desired outcome?” Most of that is not explicitly in the book, but instead what I came to understand as I perused internet articles on what happened in Foca, and Bosnia, and all these things that were going on in the backdrop to my life in the 1990s, subjects of television reports. The kind of thing that happens “over there.” How did I never know about this? And Echlin’s novel is both an echo and an answer to that question.

Speak, Silence is a fascinating companion read to Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, a book about violence against women in which the violence is not gratuitous and indeed far from the point, which instead is agency and storytelling, and the power of listening and also being heard. There is a strange tension through Echlin’s text that is suggested by its title, a sense of both-ness. An irreconcilability. That nothing can change or fix what was done to these women and the pain and suffering they live with, and that a criminal trial is still an inadequate way to address their experiences, and yet it’s also everything. That testifying can reopen a woman to pain of her experience, but also permits her a kind of power. That these women who are brave enough to tell their stories, overcoming shame and stigma in order to do so, are finally permitted the power of shape the narrative of women and war, one that has centered on men since the time of The Iliad. Echlin writes about the granite memorials to war dead in the former Yugoslavia, and really everywhere. But nowhere do we find memorials to what happened to these women, and so many women before them.

But the trial itself is a memorial, and Speak, Silence builds upon the trial to further bring these women’s experiences and stories into the consciousness of readers. Echlin choosing to fictionalize the stories, she told me on Tuesday, because it’s through fiction that readers truly get to inhabit another’s experience. And yet there are limits to this too, of course—more of the both-ness I mentioned. The novel is a testament both to empathy and also to its limits. Echlin’s protagonist says, “I did not want to use the word trauma because we all think we know what trauma means but I do not think we do.”

That protagonist, Gota, is a Canadian journalist who has spend the 1990s in Toronto with her small child, the result of a love affair she’d had in Paris with a man from Sarajevo. Uncomfortable with being a mere onlooker via the TV news, Gota travels to Sarajevo to reconnect with him, and meets Edina, the woman he’s always been in love with who is in love with a different man. Edina, a lawyer, has been collecting the stories of women who’d suffered during the war, understanding how these stories could come together to make a case against the perpetrators. And Gota and Edina become connected, Gota wanting to understand what these women had experienced, taking their stories and holding them. She attends the court trials in the Hague, and Echlin outlines the administrative demands of such a thing, the translation and interpretation required for these women to be understood. Gota is determined to learn these women’s stories and write about them, memorialize them, and her character’s intentions are analogous to Echlin’s as she created the novel.

Gota’s daughter stays with Gota’s mother in Toronto, and the reader learns about Gota’s mother’s own past, one touched by war and tragedy, and this story line is a pairing with that of Edina, her daughter, and her own mother, three generations of women, and inter-generational trauma, and resilience, and the heavy price of silence, even when speaking comes with a cost of its own. It’s a curious shape for a novel, just as the love triangle at its centre is also strange, but this is a novel whose shape is more of a web (a net?) than something more linear. There is no such thing as a peripheral character; there is no such thing as periphery at all. Instead, there is connection after connection, bridges being a central symbol in the story (both literal and figurative). The language in the story is so fascinating, subtle and understated, and yet the words themselves are like traps, double edged and tricky.

It’s not a tough book to read—it’s not even long. It’s brutal in a sense, but just as beautiful, Echlin embodying both-ness again by making death-and-violence and undying love both absolutely true at once. Narratively speaking, it’s really curious but fascinatingly so, layer upon layer of meaning, and it’s impossible not to thoroughly engage with, the reader taking the story within and being changed by it, which is just what its author intended.

May 3, 2021

The Girl from Dream City, by Linda Leith

I have become unfathomably bored with the self-mythologization of male writers in my middle years, with all their memoirs and collected works, and stories about all the pretty young women lining up to fuck them. With the takeaway from their examples—that this what a genius is, what an artist is. That these men are the definition of the literary life. Their pompousness, and entitlement to take take up space—but of course, these men are usually compensating for something. If any of them had truly attained the status they believe they are due, wouldn’t they have other people to do the mythologizing for them?

And then along comes Linda Leith’s memoir The Girl From Dream City like the tall glass of water I didn’t even realize I was thirsty for. I loved this book. A book that Leith claims in the end is not a memoir, but more of an essay: “an attempt at approximating what really happened. A prose work, certainly. It has an uncertain basis in what really happened to someone who resembles this girl, the adolescent, the young woman, the older woman—all the characters I might have been, once upon a time.”

In The Girl From Dream City (the title taken from a remark by Pauline Kael about Carey Grant, referenced in Zadie Smith’s essay “Speaking in Tongues”), Leith writes about her extraordinarily peripatetic childhood—born in Northern Ireland, and then to London where her parents are ardent Communists until Leith’s father Desmond, a doctor, travels to Romania and becomes disillusioned with the realities of the movement, then they’re off to Switzerland, and then Montreal, and then Nairobi—but by that time, Leith is making her own way, studying in London, and then returning to Montreal where her literary life is rooted as she becomes a critic, literary magazine editor, novelist, and then founder of the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, before creating her eponymous publishing company, continuing her celebration of translation, international writers, and really great books.

I love the audacity of a woman naming her company after herself, and that same audacity is so admirably present in Leith’s memoir, of claiming her triumphs and achievements, though this is a kind of audacity that was a long time coming, as she shows in the book. For while she grew up within a culture of storytelling, Leith herself was not encouraged in this respect, expected to submit to her father’s dominant narrative instead instead, and what he expected of his daughter (which was certainly not independence or any kind of challenge). “Whatever you say, say nothing,” from Seamus Heaney, is the epigraph to her first chapter, and this was also her parents approach to their own stories (particularly those of her father’s mental illness and exile from Communism). A lot of this beautiful book is Leith finally fitting together the pieces of the universe that took a long time to make sense to her.

I also love this book for showing that a vibrant domestic life is not necessarily opposed to a literary one. Leith marries young and has three sons, and during the years her life is consumed by her family’s needs (as she was also working as a teacher), she longs to write, and is not able to. And yet all this would become part of her process too—it reminds me of what Carol Shields writes in the afterword to Dropped Threads: “Tempus did not fugit. In a long and healthy life, which is what most of us have, there is plenty of time… This was not a mountain we were climbing; it was closer to being a novel with a series of chapters.” And full immersion in the literary world, in such a fabulous fashion, would be the chapter that—for Leith—arrives when her children are older, an excellent and fulfilling period that continues, bringing together the various threads of her life—travel, languages, literature, books.

Leith writes vividly about the longing she had for this kind of life as both a child, and as a young mother, dreaming of writing books and fabulous conversations with literary people. And in her memoir, she writes just as compellingly about how she made it so, and the books and writers her inspired her, about the trials and errors, successes and triumphs of her career. That this is what an artist is. That this is what constitutes a literary life, and it really is still subversive for a woman to stand up and assert such a thing for herself. To so fully own her story, and to dare to write her name on things, and it’s only subversive, of course, because self-mythologization is not something women are encouraged in—even when it’s most deserved.

Because what is self-mythologizing after all except telling the story of how one came to be?

In The Girl From Dream City, Linda Leith shows us the way.

April 29, 2021

Lost Immunity, by Daniel Kalla

No one really needs to be reading about disease outbreaks during Year 2 of a Global Pandemic, you might argue, but I think you’d be wrong, because Daniel Kalla’s thriller Lost Immunity is about a different disease (meningitis) and because it honestly warmed my heart to come across the book’s references to Covid-19 in the past tense. And because while the book is a compelling plot-driven ride, the ideas it engages with are also timely and vital, and informed by Kalla’s own experiences as an emergency physician in Vancouver BC.

Kalla’s last book, The Last High, about the opioid crisis, was one of my favourite reads of last summer, and the follow-up is even better, mostly because it deals in ideas I’m constantly grappling with anyway these days, about risk and trust, vaccines, and disinformation, and how public health officials are meant to manage anything through all that noise. It’s really wonderful to see these ideas in action, to see them complicated and interrogated in a story about their real world stakes.

The centre of the novel is Lisa Dyer, head of Public Health in Seattle when a meningitis outbreak at a bible camp begins to spread through the community, killing children and teens. Turns out a pharmaceutical company has a new vaccine that’s been through trials and might be the only weapon to stop more people from dying—but she’ll get pushback from the “vaccine-hesitant” community, never mind the fact that both she and the drug company will both have to put their reputations on the line.

But of course because this is a thriller, there is a further complication—someone is trying to sabotage the vaccination program. This aspect of the story heightens the stakes, and underlines the importance of trust and safety, while not undermining the science of vaccination, of which Kalla is well aware. But he also manages sympathetic representation of different points of view—Lisa’s family is opposed to vaccination, and another character is a public anti-vaxxer who blames vaccinations for his son’s autism. Kalla shows that even when the science is sound, the situation on the ground can be complicated, and assessing notions of risk is different in practice than theory, and especially when it’s personal.

I loved this book. A gripping read, but it made me think, which is a perfect combination.

April 19, 2021

Tainna, by Norma Dunning

Almost four years ago, I had my mind blown by Norma Dunning’s short story collection Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, a collection of heartfelt, page-bursting, ribald gorgeous stories, and as soon as I started reading her follow-up, Tainna, I knew I was in for something just as great. The first story, “Amak,” about two sisters estranged for many years who come together again, even though one of them—the narrator—knows she’s walking into a trap. The way that decades-old traumas continue to be carried, and how they might be understood so differently by two people who experienced it together, and the nuance of that relationship, of that fraught and agonizing love that will always fail to deliver what either party desires from it—oh, Dunning nails it with such acuity. She gets it exactly right, which is what I love about these stories, their straightforwardness, how there is nothing extraneous or elliptical. They’re rich and vivid, and absolutely satisfying, but never trite.

“Kunak” is the story of a homeless man on the streets of Edmonton, Inuk like most of the characters in the collection, whose grandfather has passed on to the spirit world, but watches over him still. In “Eskimo Heaven,” a Priest touches the hand of a deceased member of his congregation and is taken on a journey to learn an appreciation for the culture of the people he lives amongst. A group of women just post middle-age get together on the regular to try to snare a rich man in “Panem et Circenses.” And Annie Muktuk is back in “These Old Bones,” this time from her own point of view, when she leaves the north and her husband after a devastating place and begins to build a new life for herself with assistance from a former foe.

That sounds heavy, doesn’t it? And it is, but the story is just as rich with colour and life as it is devastating. Nothing is ever just one thing in these stories, or stays still long enough to be. These are stories of how trauma is born and turned into stories, which is how these characters (and anybody) comes to understand their experiences. These are stories about character, about how character is formed by resilience and grit, and how survival comes from hands that reach out in the darkness, unseen, and how the people those hands are saving are so often unseen themselves, but Dunning makes them known in her stories, in startling, brilliant clarity.

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Photo Kerry Clare with her Laptop

My Books

The Doors
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