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September 10, 2020

Songs for the End of the World, by Saleema Nawaz

Book Cover for SONGS FOR THE END OF THE WORLD

When Saleema Nawaz’s Songs for the End of the World was published as an e-book in May, I wasn’t ready for it. I couldn’t do it. A book about a novel coronavirus that sweeps across the world in 2020, beginning in China, and then exploding in New York City. Fiction as uncanny as all-get-out (the novel was written between 2013 and 2019—um, and it includes in its cast of characters a novelist whose book about a pandemic is proving eerily similar to real life events—I KNOW!) but I was having enough trouble facing such things in the world. Plus I don’t have an e-reader…

It was with great hope that I was planning to read the book when it came out in print in August. Hoping the world might seem more recognizable then, Nawaz’s story of a pandemic not quite so close to home, or perhaps that I would be able to put some distance between it and my own situation. And I am so glad that all this transpired, because I liked this novel so much, found it utterly absorbing, and rich.

I suppose it’s not so uncanny how prescient the book seems (it’s Nawaz’s third, following short story collection Mother Superior and the novel Bone and Bread) considering Nawaz based her own pandemic on disease models and intervention strategies. (She was also able to intuit that after a handful of days of quarantine, a person would inevitably order a treadmill.) In a Q&A at the end of the book, she goes into interesting detail about her process, and also writes about how while she didn’t necessarily set out to counter typical disaster narratives, she wanted to “explore…how the stories we tell can influence our behaviour in the real world, for better or for worse.”

(This reminded me of my favourite line from Ali Smith’s Autumn: “…whoever makes up the story makes up the world.” )

What’s most absorbing about the novel is not the pandemic plot, however. First, it is the sentences. “Calamity began, as usual, on an ordinary day. The city roiled with the amplified impatience of a million insomniacs, sleeping children breathed polluted air, low-level exploitation crept across neighbourhoods with insectile persistence, and a thousand everyday kindnesses failed to rise to the surface of consciousness.” How is that for an opener?

And second is the characters, beginning with Elliott, the first responder in Manhattan; Owen, a novelist whose novel appears belatedly on bestseller lists when the pandemic starts; Stu, an indie rockstar whose bandmate and wife, Emma, is pregnant; Sarah, a single mother, who contemplates her future with her child; Keelan, a philosopher whose on work on disasters has resonance for an audience that’s desperate for hope. Moving back and forth between the contemporary moment and pivotal events from the characters’ pasts (young Emma aboard a years-long sea voyage with her eccentric family as her mother freaks out about Y2K), Nawaz has each character singularly navigating the pandemic crisis, but also shows the ways in which these characters’ lives are intertwined in an intricate web, sometimes in ways the characters themselves aren’t even aware of.

She conjures the world in this book, perhaps more specifically than she ever intended, and therein lies the novel’s power. That it’s not the end of the world too—such a lazy cliche. Life and love continue on.

September 9, 2020

Seven, by Farzana Doctor

A remarkable balance is required to create a novel about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) that is also a pleasure to read, but Farzana Doctor pulls it off with Seven, a book that is also about marriage, family, motherhood, sexuality, and rediscovering one’s self and purpose at mid-life.

Sharifa has left her job as a teacher in New York City, and travels with her husband and daughter to India, her birthplace, where her husband will be working during his sabbatical. Other than homeschooling her daughter, however, Sharifa isn’t sure how she will spend her time in India, until she decides to partake in a research project to learn the story of her great-great-grandfather, a wealthy philanthropist who was married three times—and in his second marriage was possibly divorced?

Her marriage has just gone through a rocky patch, and so restoring that relationship is also in the forefront of Sharifa’s mind, as she becomes reacquainted with her aunts and cousins, and then realizes that her cousin’s online activism against FGM practices in their Muslim community (“khatna”) strikes much closer to home than she’d ever imagined. Turns out this archaic practice might not be talked about, but it still takes place today.

The different threads of this novel are woven powerfully. and culminate in a terrifically moving story, in particular a scene where Sharifa and other members of their community (including Sharifa’s excellent husband) gather together to publicly protest khatna, disrupting a long-held taboo. There are moments where this novel of ideas becomes much more driven by those ideas than the story itself, but I forgave these , because the book was so enveloping, and Sharifa’s awakening as to her own history was poignant and absorbing, ultimately hopeful and galvanizing. I loved having her voice in my head.

I also loved the historical thread of Sharifa’s great-great-grandfather, and its resonance in the contemporary story line, and how it all comes together so satisfying in the end.

But then the very end, oh my gosh, it destroyed me. The hardest, bravest literary choice, considering the world we live in, and how tidy endings make us too comfortable. I liked this book a lot throughout, but the leap Doctor takes in her book’s epilogue is so awesome and necessary, underlining the urgency of her message—and about how the pleasure we might take in reading this book (while we do) is actually far from the point.

August 27, 2020

Want, by Lynn Steger Strong

Lynn Steger Strong’s novel Want is packed with the same narrative tension that propelled one of my favourite books of last year, Helen Phillips’s The Need. Both of them, as is apparent from their titles, about desperate yearnings, longings, cravings, desires. For an escape hatch, for example, from the demands of motherhood, the feeding, rocking, soothing, waiting. For a way out of the trap of anxiety, a detour away from the trappings of modern life.

Want is less overtly weird, however. There is no sci-fi element, intruder in antlers, no parallel world. Or rather, the parallel world is the one that Elisabeth was promised, a child of affluent parents growing up on the 1980s and 1990s, pursuing her goals in academia, her husband leaving his job in the financial sector after the crash in 2008 to find more meaningful work in carpentry. They build a life in New York, underpinned by dreams and ideals, but it all falls to pieces. As the novel begins, they’re declaring bankruptcy, a process that began with medical and dental bills. She teaches one class at the university, and works 9-5 at a high school, one of those private academies of nightmares. She and her husband sleep in a closet in their Brooklyn apartment, and still can barely afford the rent. She awakes every morning at 4:30 to get the run in that’s so essential to her mental health, and in her downtime, she scrolls social media feeds for clues about the life of her former best friend, Sasha.

It’s not a conventional narrative. It builds and builds, but it also doesn’t, it just goes, the way a life does when you have to wake up at 4:30 every morning in a closet, when you work all day, and are up nursing most of the night. When you’re just barely hanging on, the way that Elisabeth and her husband are, and she keeps thinking back on her history with Sasha, the various ways they both betrayed each other. A story line also builds about allegations against another professor at the university, about Elisabeth’s somewhat agonizing relationship with her own mother, how the effects of a mental health breakdown years before linger still. Unremarked upon are her feelings towards her husband and children, and perhaps these are the only sure things she’s got going here. Everything else is shifting, tricky, impossible to navigate.

There is a sinister banality to Elisabeth’s experiences, one that touches on experiences of race, class and privilege, and there is also a murder, one most unconventional plot-wise, and how all the pieces of the story fit together in the end is the question. They kind of don’t—but also this is the point. Why this puzzle? Why these pieces? And what is the way out of the state that we’re in?

I loved this book.

August 21, 2020

Hamnet and Judith, by Maggie O’Farrell

For YEARS, I have had Maggie O’Farrell confused with the author Catherine O’Flynn, and also I once read another Maggie O’Farrell book (Instructions for a Heatwave) but forgot about it completely, so I wasn’t exactly primed to pick up her latest, Hamnet and Judith, especially since it’s set in the sixteenth century and is about Shakespeare. No thank you.

And yet?

Then I kept reading reviews about it, and I can’t recall exactly what swayed me, but it was something about the universality of the fiction, and the glowingness of all the raves. And so I bought the book when we were at Lighthouse Books last month, and I loved it so completely, reading it a few weeks later when we were camping at Bronte Creek.

Which was two weeks ago now, and this week has got away from me. It is 5:31 pm on a Friday as I write this and I have to go make diner, but first, I want to put down on the record that this is perhaps the finest book you’ll read this year. Oh, the writing! The sentences! The scene in the apple store, those pieces of fruit bop-bop-bopping on the shelves to a rhythm. The whole world so magnificently conjured, and yes, it was the universality. It doesn’t matter that this was Shakespeare’s family (in fact the bard himself is not even named), or the century where the story is set—there was an immediacy to the narrative that I so rarely experience in historical fiction. Perhaps because the story is written in the present tense, but it works, the people, the scenes, so alive, so achingly, complicatedly real. And yes, the heartache, for this is the story of a child who dies, and the family who must suffer this incalculable loss, and this universal. The unfathomability. The fear as well, for this is a story of plague, and it seemed especially resonant as I read it in the summer of 2020. And the chapter about how the plague arrived in Warwickshire, fleas, and beads, and ship cats, the way that one thing leads to another, how everything is connected.

A truly magical, and stunning read.

August 10, 2020

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett

A literary highlight of my week away in July was Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, the follow up to her smash-hit debut The Mothers, which was one of my favourite books of 2016. A novel that reaches across lines of race, class and gender, across history, across an entire nation…to tell the story of a pair of twin sisters who run away from the southern town they come from, a community of light-skinned Black people. And then years later, in the summer of 1968, one of the sisters returns with her daughter, to live out her life where she started. Ironic when she’s the one who wanted to be an actor, but it’s her twin sister who—as we learn in the rest of the book—spends the rest of her life passing as white, enacting her suburban ennui in an upscale California neighbourhood, like a character in a 1970s’ Joan Didion novel. And what happens when the two sisters’ children become connected years later? Whole lifetimes unfurling from a connection that cannot be severed, a fascinating story of halves and doubleness, infinitely satisfying.

June 26, 2020

Five Little Indians, by Michelle Good

‘Lucy leaned back in her chair, hands folded in her lap. “They call us survivors.” “Yeah.” “I don’t think I survived. Do you?”‘

Cree writer Michelle Good’s debut novel, Five Little Indians—winner of the HarperCollins UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, Good earning her MFA at UBC while also practising as a lawyer—is the story of five Indigenous young people who were taken from their families as children and grew up at a remote church-run residential school where they were subject to abuse and deprivation, and then cast back out into the world with nothing as they came of age—with no skills, no community or ancestral ties. Nothing but trauma, and then what happens next? And the novel is the answer to that question.

Set in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside during the 1960s and decades that follow, Five Little Indians weaves together the stories of Kenny (once notorious for his escapes from the school, a pattern that continues), Maisie (a mother figure for the others, but unable to comfort herself), Lucy (who finds meaning in motherhood), Clara (who finds herself in the American Indian Movement and connecting with the teachings of an elder), and Howie (who struggles to stay out of jail).

The first 100 pages are hard-going, not just because of the trauma they convey, but because the reader is still getting a sense of novel’s structure and the characters themselves too seem to be finding themselves, their feet, and are not as developed as they’ll be in the rest of the book. I will admit that I was wary during these pages that this would be a novel that worked for me, but I am so glad I kept going. Because when Clara’s character takes her turn telling the story, all at once the novel is injected with a furious momentum and energy, the writing in these chapters so artful and confident, and it charges the remainder of the book with narrative magic. And we see that these characters find ways to support each other, to save themselves, to keep going and try to survive and thrive. And sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they don’t.

The point of a book with five protagonists is that there is never just one story, or maybe that one story turns into a different story for every kind of person. This novel also complicates the idea of survival, which is more meaningful in theory than practice, a process that never ends, and which can be impossible. Many of us readers like tidy endings, a story of healing, resolution, but for those who carry the traumatic legacy of residential schools, there is often no such thing. Because how does one reconcile the irreconcilable?

But the end of the book, these characters were firmly lodged in my head, their voices, their connections, their pain and their joys. Powerful and deeply felt, Five Little Indians is both a good read and a literary achievement.

June 17, 2020

The Last Goldfish and In the Shade

“Good reviews…prompt me to borrow a recently-published book on grief from the library. I read the acknowledgements, glance at the author’s photo, and skim the table of contents. Partner, child, parent. Not a word about friends, which causes me to toss it onto the pile of books on my night table.” —Marg Heidebrecht, In the Shade

Thankfully, there is no reason related to my own life for me to pick up two books on friendship and grief, except that they’ve both come out this spring, and also friendship has been on my mind of late. Back in March, it was telephone calls to my closest friends that brought me solace in moments of stress, and my two best friends from high school in particular, friendships whose foundations were born on the telephone, long and pointless conversation, spiral cords wrapped around our fingers, until our parents would finally get on the line, and yell at us to get off.

It’s these connections that Anita Lahey conjures in her new memoir, The Last Goldfish, a monument to friendship and to her friend Louisa who died of cancer when they were 22. A friendship that begin in Grade 9 French class, and persisted through high school in the early 1990s, one’s teen years enriched with so much possibility because of friends, the doors they open for us. For Lahey, Louisa was it, a sparkly personality, with divorced parents who didn’t go to church. But soon their families were each other’s, and they would both go off to university together in Toronto, living together in a co-op dorm at Ryerson, studying journalism. Dealing with other roommates, boyfriends, school and family drama, and also Louisa’s health problems, which would stay in the background for many years, numerous lumps removed from different parts of her body from childhood. Until finally she is diagnosed with cancer, and Lahey continues to be part of her friend’s life, keeping her company during hospital stays and treatments, the hospitals just a stone’s throw away from where they lived and worked, and life goes on. Louisa works at the Eaton’s Centre, Anita at a bookshop across the street, and she gorgeously captures the spirit of the time, of youth and possibility, of life in the city.

When Louisa’s condition worsens, she decides to leave school, and ultimately moves to Vancouver to live with her boyfriend, and Lahey consoles herself that it’s like practice, that she’ll be losing her friend before she actually loses her. Lahey herself on the cusp of her whole life, as her friend is on the verge of losing hers, and she explores this strange conjunction 25 years later, how impossible it was to understand it then or even now.

The connection is different in Marg Heidebrecht’s collection of essays, In the Shade: Friendship, Loss and the Bruce Trail. Heidebrecht and Pam have known each other for years, part of the same community, circles of children. But now the children are grown, and the women are contemplating new horizons. Pam, upon retirement, declares her intention to hike the Bruce Trail, 885 kilometres stretching across southern Ontario, and Heidebrecht decides to join her, the two friends venturing out together and reaching their goal in pieces, over the course of four years. Shortly after their accomplishment, Pam is diagnosed with cancer, and Heidebrecht’s book is a memorial to their friendship, to the power and fortitude of women at midlife, and to the wonders of nature and rewards of walking and hiking. The essays are rich and funny, language sparkling, and the storytelling marvelous, packed with practical advice (stow your water bottles in each other’s backpack side-pockets=GENIUS), amusing anecdotes, and tales of the mistakes and misadventures essential to any journey being memorable.

I loved both these books, which are books about grief, but which are uplifting for the way they capture what is lost, just why the weight of grief is so enormous. Celebrations of women’s friendship, both of them, the kinds of stories that aren’t enough told.

May 11, 2020

Starred Review for The Abortion Caravan

One thing I miss about those days in which we used to sit in cafes is the opportunity to flagrantly display the word “abortion” in public. A small act of resistance, but even better, I was reading an extraordinary book and my (starrred) review is now online at Quill & Quire.

Karin Wells’ book is a rich and vivid record of an event in Canadian history we all need to know better (where IS that Heritage Minute?) when a ragtag group of women travelled from Vancouver to Ottawa and shut down parliament in their protest against Canada’s unjust abortion laws, literally CHAINING THEMSELVES TO THE SEATS. (Women who worked in MPs’ offices forged them passes to the House of Commons.) It’s an incredible story and Wells tells it so well, tying the event to other activism sweeping North America at the time. (Wells speculates that the women weren’t arrested for their disruption because police were hyper conscious of optics, the Kent State killings having taken place the week before.) It’s such a good book! Read my review, and then read the book yourself. Buy a copy for your mom!

May 5, 2020

A Match Made for Murder, by Iona Whishaw

If you’ve ever wondered just how much they have to pay me to love the Lane Winslow mystery series as much as I do…the answer is nothing. And never has there been a series quite so easy to love, a series of books that has done wonders for my reputation as a person with good literary instincts, because everyone I recommend the series to loves them too, and that I get to receive a tiny bit of credit for that is marvellous luck. To have any kind of proximity to Lane Winslow is really a wondrous thing.

It never disappoints, this series, whose seventh installment is A Match Made For Murder, and Iona Whishaw has taken her heroine and her new husband on honeymoon to Tucson, Arizona. But first I’ll catch you up a bit, if you’re new to King’s Cove, the small village outside of Nelson, BC, where Lane Winslow—young, brilliant, beautiful, looking for a quiet life after spending WW2 spying for the British—retires in search of a quieter life, but she’s just got this knack for stumbling over bodies. Which brings her close to the handsome Inspector Darling—although in the first book, he’s arresting her on suspicion of murder. All that’s sorted out now, however, and the wedding has finally happened. On her honeymoon, at least, will Lane finally get the rest and relaxation she’s been seeking for the past two years?

But just while Lane is settled onto a lounge chair by the pool, reading a book (Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers, naturally!), a shot rings out, and it won’t be the last one fired before the book is over. It turns out that Lane and Darling are surrounded by couples with complicated arrangements, mob connections, and possibly murderous intentions. Meanwhile, back in King’s Cove, Ames is left to unravel a curious case involving a dead man whose reputation for interfering with teenage girls goes back at least a decade, and when the woman he fancies turns out to have a connection to him, he struggles to retain his impartiality.

As always with Whishaw’s books, the novel is a delight, charming and funny, cozy and enveloping—by page 7, there are already scones. It’s also a wonderful literary homage to the classics of detective fiction, and I love that Nelson, BC, comes with its very own Baker Street. But coziness is not even the half of it—the series takes on race and racism (in this latest book, Nelson has its first Black police officer and Ames comes to understand that he gets to be regarded as an individual, while his colleague is forever representing an entire race), and misogyny, rape and spousal abuse all factor in this story, which is strongly concerned with the enormous power that men had at the time (and still have now) to control the women in their lives, and also with their sense of entitlement to that control. It’s an idea that is present in both Lane and Darling’s minds as they contemplate how their relationship might be different now that they are married—but then neither of them has ever had much taste for convention.

Lane Winslow, of course, will be keeping her name.


I will be co-hosting Iona Whishaw’s virtual book lunch tomorrow night (Wednesday May 6, 7:00 Eastern). I hope you can join us!

And here is Iona Whishaw reading from her new novel as part of 49thShelfLAUNCHPAD.

April 23, 2020

Misconduct of the Heart, by Cordelia Strube

I was nervous about this book, and if you’ve ever read Cordelia Strube you’ll understand. Cordelia Strube whose previous novel was On the Margins of These Pages, There is Heartbreak, or at least it might as well have been. (The book was actually On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, it was one of my favourite books of 2016, and won the Toronto Book Award.) But my capacity for heartbreak is so currently occupied at the moment by everything, and I can’t take any more. So I went into this warily, is what I’m saying, like the book itself was an unreliable teenage boyfriend. “Here’s my heart, Cordelia Strube,” is what I was thinking. “Be careful, please.”

Misconduct of the Heart is not a feel-good comedy. Narrator Stevie is currently sandwiched between violent assaults by her son who returned from Afghanistan with PTSD and the demands of her aging parents (her mother assaults their personal support worker and her father shits his pants), all the while Stevie herself has trauma that she’s never properly processed or admitted to anyone. She became pregnant with her son after a violent gang rape when she was a teenager, and was never able to show him affection—though her own mother and father weren’t stand-out examples of parenting either, so did anyone ever have a chance?

But they do, which is the point of this book, which is as funny as it’s dark. Populated by the characters who work at Chappy’s, the weathered franchise restaurant in suburban Toronto where Stevie works as kitchen manager, and if you’ve ever worked in a kitchen, you’ll recognize the scene. High stress, as if Stevie needs any more—but then someone drops off a child who might be the daughter of her son, and here Stevie sees the possibility of something. Redemption? Could this troubled world ever give her that much?

This is not a feel-good comedy at all, but oh it’s so richly funny. Funny in the way the world is, absurd, preposterous, sad and hilarious. “You can’t make this stuff up,” kind of funny, which is funny because Strube does, and it’s wonderful. And even feel-good, because there is hope and there is triumph, and the reader is rooting for every single one of these lovable losers to finally win.

It’s a slow build, this book, and first 100 pages are tough—the narrative is a bit disorienting, we’re not sure why we care about any of these people yet, and the story of Stevie’s past and what happened to her son is really brutal. But the reader should persist because once the story picks up, the payoff is huge, such an unrelenting kernel of light and love. There is nobody else who writes like Cordelia Strube, and this is one of my favourite books of the year.

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