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May 15, 2018

In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo, by Claire Tacon

Everywhere you go, you’ll hear somebody complaining about how political correctness is ruining literature, how authors don’t have the freedom to tell the stories they choose, and what a pity it is that these days there’s so much we’re not allowed to say. To which I would reply for a request for specifics: Please, what it is it that you’re no longer permitted to say? And if the answer is that one time you wrote this thing and people on the internet got angry about it: that is not the same thing. As a writer, and a purveyor of language, you really ought to know the difference. Further, if you’ve been reading as much as I have, you’ll be assured that literature is richer than its ever been, as it’s being expanded, enlivened, and including stories and voices we haven’t heard before. With such boundlessness, there’s absolutely no story you’re not permitted to tell—and long as you ensure that you’re telling it with utmost excellence. For which Claire Tacon’s second novel, In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo, absolutely sets the standard.

In her novel, Tacon tells the story of Starr, a woman with Williams Syndrome, who has learning challenges and special needs. She also gives voice to Darren, a lovelorn Chinese-Canadian teenager who’s working as a mascot at Frankie’s Funhouse (basically Chuck E. Cheese) in the months before heading to university to study engineering. And Starr’s father, Henry, who is devoted to his daughter, whose love of Frankie’s Funhouse led to his job there repairing animatronic musicians and servicing pinball machines. Henry has even installed a Frankie’s Funhouse set in his basement for Starr’s entertainment pleasure, constructed out of decommissioned machines. And it’s when he learns via an online ad that the one piece he’s missing—Fanny Feathers, the flamingo in cowgirl regalia—is for sale not far from Chicago that he decides to embark upon a road trip with Starr and also with Darren, who’s got a plan to win back his girlfriend at ComicCon.

This is very much a novel about the difficulties of navigating the system as the parent of a disabled adult, the challenges of finding these adults meaningful work, supporting them in independent living situations, and accessing the resources so that parents don’t have to do all this work on their own—except usually this ends up being the case. Starr herself is one of several first-person narrators, so we also see the situation from her point of view as well, her daily joys and frustrations, the challengers of getting along with her roommate and with work colleagues, and how she works to deal with her challenges and anxieties, and with her parents’ expectations. Which are the same challenges that Darren is facing, actually, and also Starr’s younger sister, Melanie, who has always received less attention from her father than Starr has. And Melanie had struggles of her own—she’s trying to get pregnant, and fears a chromosomal abnormality, and what do these fears say about the fact of her sister’s existence? How will Henry react when he learns what Melanie is going through? And what have nearly thirty years of focussing on Starr meant for Henry’s marriage? He’d go to any length to care for his eldest daughter, but can he say the same thing about his wife?

I loved this book. A novel with this many first-person points of view is an ambitious one, but Tacon lives up to the challenge. She gives each of her characters such rich and rewarding back-stories, occupations, and preoccupations—each one enough to fill a book on its own. And as the story progresses, it becomes clear how connected everything is, how multifaceted the symbolism is. This is not a book about Starr, about disability, about a road trip, about an animatronic rat—but instead, it’s about relationships and intersections, and the incredible interconnectedness of all our lives and the things we love, and the ramifications of our behaviour on others that we might fail to consider. It’s about making safe spaces in the world so that Henry can send Starr out into it with assurance that she is valued and included. It’s a novel about trust, in ourselves, in society, and each other. And it’s a triumph.

April 24, 2018

It Begins in Betrayal, by Iona Wishaw

Oh my gosh, I am in love. I’ve been noting Iona Wishaw’s Lane Winslow mystery series since the first title came out in 2016, most because of the spectacular cover design. But it wasn’t until Friday that I’d actually had a copy in my hands—her latest, It Begins in Betrayal —and started reading. Two days and 360 pages later I finally put the book down an unabashed Lane Winslow/Iona Wishaw convert. The book was brilliant! Absolutely in the spirit of Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane/Peter Wimsey mysteries, but smart and fresh in its own right. For lovers of cozy mysteries and British police procedurals—there’s even a murder investigation in which evidence includes fragments of a broken tea set—this title will not disappoint. But of course there are three more in the series before it, so maybe go back to the start?

From where I dove in mid-action, however, it was easy to find my bearings. The novels are set in BC’s interior during the 1940s, and by this fourth title ex-British Spy Lane Winslow who retired to Canada after a tumultuous war is in the throes of love with Police Inspector Frederick Darling—there is a reference to the first time they met when he arrested her. There’s a lot going on here—a woman’s body has been discovered in a remote area with suspicious injuries, obviously murder. But before Darling is able to investigate, he’s called away for a meeting with a mysterious government agent asking questions about the downing of his Lancaster bomber four years before in 1943, an event that killed two men in his crew. And the questions he’s being asked are not so straightforward—turns out Darling is about to be charged with murder, a hangable offence.

Thankfully Darling has Lane Winslow in his corner, with her wits, savvy, and intelligence connections. When he’s summoned to London and put in jail, she follows across the ocean to find out more about this vast conspiracy that’s engulfed Darling and his reputation—and can’t help turning up contacts with people from her espionage days whom she’d fled to Canada in hopes of ever avoiding. Could what’s happening to Darling have something to do with her after all? And is she willing to put her own life on the line to save him by travelling into Berlin to spy on the Soviets? If she does, will it even work?

As Darling waits in jail, and Lane works with his lawyer to figure out the real story of what’s happening, Darling’s subordinate back home is at work solving the murder of the woman in the woods, which also has ties to the woman’s family in England and her sister who’d been jilted decades before, and he and Lane assist each other via a couple of rare and miraculous transatlantic phone calls, thereby weaving this wide-reaching story neatly together. And it was such a pleasure to read it, the humour, the intelligence, the underlying feminism. Lane on the world of espionage: “…she was beginning to think the entire enterprise was run by a group of men who had never advanced past the age of thirteen.” The writing was wonderful, the plotting rock-solid, and I adored these characters. Can’t wait to delve into the backlist and discover what I’ve been missing.

April 17, 2018

1979 and That Time I Loved You

Ray Robertson’s new novel, 1979, is set in Robertson’s hometown, Chatham, ON, the story Tom Buzby, of a small town paperboy who once come back from the dead and now everybody thinks he must have some uncanny knowledge of the world and its workings. Which he does, actually, but in a more practical sense than assumed, the way he’s privy to glimpses of private lives, and wise to the cycles and seasons of the town and its residents. He’s not sure either why everybody thinks he’s got access to wisdom, but that’s because he takes his point of view for granted, his unique perspective on ordinary lives, and the fact that there is really no such thing.

Full disclosure: not a long happens in this book. Tom dies and comes back from the dead before the story starts, which is also when his mother, a former stripper turned religious zealot, runs off with the pastor, leaving her tattoo-artist husband to care of Tom and his older sister Julie. There’s a simmering tension involving Tom’s dad finally buying his own property, and the destruction of a local building to make way for a downtown mall, but otherwise it’s Tom on his paper-round, listening to his sister’s records, hanging out with his friends, thinking about his mother, checking out the books at Cole’s, and trying to impress an older girl by lying and telling her he’s read Fear of Flying. All of these characters are richly and sympathetically imagined, and realized.

It might be a two hour drive from Chatham to Wingham, but I still got an Alice Munro vibe from Robertson’s small town scenes, and this was underlined by the “newspaper stories” that are scattered through the novel. Imagined stories (‘Young Woman Finds Ontological Comfort in New Pair of Pants:’ “When I Look at Them, They Remind Me of Who I am”; ‘Man Grows Old and Cranky:’ “I Knew it Happened to Everyone, but Somehow I Thought in My Case There Might Be an Exception”; ‘Man Found Dead in Next-Door Neighbour’s Swimming Pool:’ “I didn’t Necessarily Want to Die, but I Didn’t Want to be Alive Either”) providing readers with access to the inner lives of the people who are secondary characters in Tom Buzby’s own tale, giving answers to questions that Tom does not yet have the age and experience to be asking—although he’s already haunted by a sense that they’re coming.

The book is rich with allusions to literature and music, and one reference specifically informs the project, the poetry collection Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters, which narrates the epitaphs of residents of a small town. Robertson’s take with the newspaper stories is similar in approach, and connects with Tom’s job (and downtown circuits) in a meaningful way. The result is beautifully crafted, a rich and textured perspective of small town life, a nostalgic journey that resonates with the world of today.

When I picked up Carrianne Leung’s new book next, That Time I Loved You, it was purely a coincidence, and I wasn’t expecting a connection. Until the first paragraph, of course: “1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves. I was eleven years old and in Grade  6. Elsewhere in world, big things were happening. McDonalds introduced the Happy Meal, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Michael Jackson released his album Off the Wall. But none of that was as significant to me as the suicides…”

These two books are excellent companions, perfect contenders for “If you like this, read…” pairings. Instead of small town Ontario and the past meeting the future, Leung is chronicling the suburbs and the possibility of escaping the past. The setting is Scarborough, where brand new houses with their leafy lawns on winding streets represent fresh starts, new beginnings for the immigrant families who imagine they’ve finally arrived after years of struggle. There’s even a kid with a paper route, Josie, who’d inherited the route from her big brother: “Josie loved her routine and the sense of purpose her job gave her. She loved collecting the money at the end of the week from the neighbours, who often slipped her cookies, candy or even a tip.”

Although the centre of this novel is Josie’s best friend June, another first-generation Chinese-Canadian who revels in the expansiveness and freedom of her childhood, playing outside with her packs of friends until the streetlights come on. Like Tom Buzby, June has her eye on things, and she’s got surprising insight into the lives of her neighbours, although she doesn’t understand everything she learns either—least of all, why there’s been a suicide epidemic, and whose parent was going to be next?

A novel in stories is a perfect container for this book about the suburbs, every chapter a different house on the street. Open the door and go inside to find a different story, a closet full of secrets, a peek out the window to a new view of the street. The Portuguese housewife who is tired with putting up with her abusive husband; the young Italian-Canadian wife who has moved to Scarborough away from downtown, and who longs for a baby that doesn’t come; the neighbourhood social butterfly who is secretly a thief, and whose habits eventually get found out by her neighbours. Plus June’s friends, sweet and effeminate Nav, Darren whose academic potential is undermined by a racist teacher, and Josie, whose uncle is sexually abusing her. As with Robertson and the news articles, Leung’s structure permits her to include a wide range of different voices, and to suggest there is no such thing as a central narrative, but instead to shine a light on these remarkable places where stories intersect.

March 29, 2018

The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner, by Jennifer Quist

I listened to a wonderful segment on CBC’s The Current this morning about the necessity of changing our relationship with death, of re-familiarizing death as a concept and inventing (or rediscovering) rituals for it to be woven into the fabric of our lives. This same directive has also been the force behind Jennifer Quist’s first two novels, both of which were odd and oddly compelling, books that particularly preoccupied with death and the macabre. I read both of them and found them well-written and remarkable, but never quite knew what to make of them as a reader, let alone a reviewer. However Quist’s third novel, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner, is the one I finally feel as though I’ve got a handle on—and I’m grateful to her publisher, Linda Leith Publishing, for their investment in voices who are a little outside the ordinary, in writers who are daring to do something different.

And of course, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner is also about death, but the lens is wider here, and so too is the story’s resonance. Whereas Quist’s previous novels were concentrated on individual families and their esoteric habits and rituals, The Apocalypse… involves two very families,  the interactions and intersections between those two families, and also with other individuals with a wide range of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. At the centre of the novel is Morgan Turner herself, three years after the brutal murder of her sister Tricia. Three years after so that some of the shock and trauma of such a violent crime has faded away, and the narrative can consume itself with ideas beyond conventional grief and loss. Important too: Morgan and Tricia were not especially close, and her sister’s death has not left a gaping hole in Morgan’s life. Also, Morgan Turner is not a person who demands a lot of life or the world anyway—she’s content enough taking the bus every day to her job washing dishes in a fast food restaurant. So that she might not rail at the universe for all its injustices the way another character would who’d see herself at that universe’s centre.

Which is not to say that Morgan isn’t questioning: how does a person begin to move on after such a tragedy? The question particularly relevant as the trial for Tricia’s accused killer is coming up, and he’s planning to plead that he’s not criminally responsible for what happened to him. Which, naturally, is upsetting for the entire Turner family, although they all handle it in different ways. Morgan’s parents, Marc and Sheila, are divorced, and Marc has made himself a (rather self-serving) media sensation for his forgiveness of his daughter’s killer—and Quist’s black humour is apparent here with her poignant portrayal of the pretty ridiculous Marc, as compared to his ex-wife:

Sheila’s anger is always raw and steaming, irresolvable. Her story is tenacity‚ chasing Finnemore toward a crushing, punishing destiny she has already publicly denounced as insufficient. When she and Marc divided up their archetypes, he chose the wrong side. His story of cooling and moving on—a loud, public claim of letting go. Soon, he will have to stop talking about it, stop posing for it, stop pleading for it, and do it.

Morgan’s feelings manifest in stranger ways—she becomes preoccupied with horror films, she ones she remembers from during the brief time her sister had been a film studies major before she dropped out of school. She also becomes obsessed with the abattoir where her brother works, and ends up getting job in the factory kitchen, where she connects with Chinese colleagues over an obsession with Korean soap operas. Meanwhile, she’s attending meetings with the crown attorney who’ll be prosecuting the case, not her lawyer, no. The family doesn’t have a lawyer, of course, or a real place in this process (which is part of the reason that Morgan doesn’t know what to do). The lawyer prosecuting the case has a family of his own, a sister Morgan encounters one day while she’s clearing tables in the restaurant where she works. This is Gillian, “a Mormon do-gooder,” who pops in and out of Morgan’s life after that. And Gillian’s other brother, Paul, who is schizophrenic and who is grappling with his own problems with the legal system. And together, all of these characters provide Morgan with the spiritual scaffolding to process what happened to her sister and her family, and to begin to move on with her life.

I loved this book. Quist’s narratives are always rich and compelling, and this latest novel is no exception. It’s sad and brutal, but also sweet and funny, and all its characters are so real. It also becomes such a page turner as the story progresses, the trial nearing its end, Morgan’s desperate attempt to be there for the verdict—there is so much tension. We’re also been privy to the lawyer working into the early hours of morning on the case, and how high are the stakes, and what does it all mean? And where do we find that meaning, which is the novel’s central question, and Morgan Turner’s revelation. Revelation being another word for “apocalypse,” which is only just about destruction and devastation as we understand it in the pop-cultural sense, but instead what is revealed by devastation, a divine truth. Or truths, maybe, which is what happens here with the generosity of the people Morgan meets, with what they show her, unwittingly, or otherwise, about this awful, amazing, brutal, beautiful world.

March 27, 2018

Catch My Drift, by Genevieve Scott

I was always going to have an affinity for Genevieve Scott’s debut novel, Catch My Drift. Its protagonist, Cara, is nearly my exact contemporary, and I also have a strong fascination with the 1970s’ Toronto that brought my parents together and delivered us all into the world I remember from my childhood. I’m also kind of crazy about Swim-Lit, although Catch My Drift is only really pool-centric in the first chapter, which is when Cara’s mother Lorna is a on the cusp of trying out for the Varsity swim team at the University of Toronto. It’s 1975, and swimming is her entire identity, her whole life. Which has already been rocked by the end of a romance and a car accident in which her knees were injured, undermining her swimming potential. It’s summer and she’s training at the pool where her roommate is a lifeguard, sneaking in for laps just before closing. But when it comes time to prove herself, Lorna flinches, setting in motion the rest of her life, for better or for worse.

We meet Cara in the next chapter, 1987, nine-years-old, and see Lorna now, no longer a woman on the cusp of her life, but instead a mom. A mom who’s dealing with an unreliable partner, the domestic demands of parenthood, and the consequences of a life she made that hasn’t turned out like she might have imagined. But all this is on the periphery—the narrative is filtered through the perspective of Cara, for whom her mother doesn’t really exist as a character in her own right yet. And so the story goes, moving back and forth from mother to daughter as the years go on, as Cara develops into her own person and Lorna reconciles with her own choices, a life with a lot she is proud of. Although at this point, we’re still seeing her through the disdainful eyes of her teenage daughter, who is grappling with her own questions about the kind of woman she wants to be, so it’s complicated. But it is the subtle softening of Cara’s understanding of her mother, her own emerging sympathy for her that is my favourite part of the novel, and culminates in an ending I feared would be heartbreaking but ended up being perfect and beautiful.

Not everything is subtle in Catch My Drift. Some secondary characters border on caricature. This is a novel composed of pieces and the shape of it all is a little unwieldy. In some places it reads like a first novel…but the more I read, the more assured I was by the project, and the more the story appealed to me beyond simple nostalgia. Partly because it becomes clear that nostalgia is a point the novel hangs on—what do we remember and why? What version of reality are those memories made of? How did we get from here to there? What are the consequences of our actions, both in our own destinies and in the lives of others? Because the answers are wondrous and far-reaching, even in the most ordinary lives.

February 22, 2018

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, by Kim Fu

I’ve read twelve books this month (so far!), barrelling through each one with gusto. They have been so good and I haven’t encountered a bookish dud in weeks and weeks—which meant that Naben Ruthnum’s recent tweet really resonated with me: ‘You haven’t “lost the ability to read,” you are just being lazy. Fuck the neuroscience, leave your phone in the other room and have some discipline.” YES. Or else you’re reading all the wrong books? Maybe I should be selecting your books for you, books that will recovery your ability to read—and top of the list is Kim Fu’s second novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. It’s a novel shaped like no other novel I’ve read before, original, heartbreaking, subtle and resonant. Packing a whole lot of story into a couple of hundred pages, I have no doubt that this will be one of the best books I read this year.

Imagine a novel about summer camp, about a kayaking trip gone terribly wrong, a novel that holds within it the span of a life like The Stone Diaries did, except there are five lives. Nita, Andee, Dina, Isabel and Siobhan. Ten-years-old, the dynamics between them are complicated, alliances and enemies emerging in the relationships between any relationship proper. And then the first chapter ends, and the reader finds herself sweeping through the next three decades of Nita’s life, what happened (or, as the book is constructed, is still going to happen) at camp just one detail among many that informs the person who Nita becomes. Or is it so incidental? Which is the question about which Fu’s narrative hangs.

Every other chapter outlines chronology of the camping trip, interspersed with the story of who each girl becomes—puberty, high school, friendships, sex, independence, marriage, motherhood—years and decades going by at a clip but Fu pinpoints her details so well that these chapters are each like a novel in themselves. (Some of the girls’ lives are more elusive than others; we see wha happens to Andee, the “scholarship camper” through the prism of her sister’s experiences.) And then once we get to end of the novel and know what happened to the girls on their trip, those children, those hapless (maybe?) re-enactors of Lord of the Flies, each woman’s story is cast in a different kind of light. And just a note that what actually transpires on the trip is kind of banal in its disturbingness—or is it? Is it more disturbing that this story is banal? All of which is to say that those with an aversion to stories about children in peril need not avoid reading this book. Nick Cutter’s The Troop this is not, and they don’t encounter any witches in gingerbread houses. That they don’t need to is a testament to Fu’s craft though, as she is making a lot here out of very little. Or making a little out of a lot, and this is the question the novel hangs on in the most fascinating way.

January 30, 2018

Boat People, by Sharon Bala

The debut novel by Sharon Bala (who was acclaimed for her short fiction with the award of The Journey Prize last year) is The Boat People, an ambitious, engrossing and absolutely important book that I keep hearing about everywhere—Bala was on The Sunday Edition; reviewed in The Globe & Mail—and for good reason. It’s a book that might be called timely, except that stories like this—of people fleeing war and persecution, chancing everything on survival in a new land, being viewed with suspicion upon arrival, the threat of outsiders and others being manipulated for government propaganda—are as old as stories about people venturing across seas at great peril in search of a better life are. Which is to say: as old as stories themselves. And peoples, and seas.

Inspired by the 2010 story of a ship of Tamil asylum-seekers arriving in British Columbia, Bala’s story begins with Mahindan, a Tamil mechanic who has lost everything except his young son and has bet everything he has on the chances of finding a new start in Canada. The novel begins with the ship’s interception as it reaches Canada, and follows Mahindan through the process of being imprisoned and separated from his son as months go by and his fate is left in limbo—will he get to stay in Canada, or will be he deported to Sri Lanka where nothing good awaits him. Alternate chapters also take us back through his history, showing us how he went from a happily married man with family, friends and a rich life, awaiting the birth of his first child, to someone with (almost—save for his son) nothing left to lose—the gradual reveal of Mahindan’s backstory makes for compelling, powerful reading.

But Mahindan is not the story’s centre, or not its only one; that this is a story with multiple centres and voices and points of view is an important aspect of its construction. Because there’s never just one centre of a story, and all the best narratives refuse to be contained, overflowing to be resonant in all kinds of surprising ways and flowing into other stories. Like the story of Priya, a second-generation Tamil-Canadian who would just like to finish her placement in corporate law so she can become accredited and begin work in mergers and acquisitions, thank you very much. But the fact of her ethnicity means she’s roped into a position with another lawyer in the company who’s working in refugee law and who overestimates her knowledge in terms of Tamil language and culture to assist him as he supports the Tamil asylum seekers with their refugee claims. Like Mahindan, Priya is somewhere she doesn’t belong, and for a while she resists being involved with the asylum seekers and the war her parents had been so intent on leaving behind them when they arrived in Canada. But eventually, she becomes invested, and the ramifications of this are felt deep within her family.

Like Priya, the story’s third central character has also worked to put the past behind her, a third generation Japanese Canadian called Grace whose hard work in the civil service has been rewarded with a role adjudicating refugee claimants. She begins her new position not long after the Tamils arrive, and political tensions are high, and ever being manipulated by Grace’s former boss and mentor, the Federal Minister for Public Safety whose interests lie in keeping the threat of terrorism high. Meanwhile, Grace’s mother is ailing from Alzheimers and the past and the presents are intermingling in her head, stirring stories of the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War Two, stories that Grace’s family had been careful never to dwell on. Stories of othering, persecution, public safety threats, racism, and so much terrible history that’s so analogous to what’s going on in the present day.

Bala’s prose is beautiful, the narrative so careful woven, and the shape of the novel itself so terrifically undefined in a way that allows the story to go beyond its limits, to pose questions that don’t necessarily have answers, to unsettle its readers in the most powerful way. There is a didacticism at work, but with a depth and complexity that saves the novel from its few too-earnest moments. Further, a little earnestness is nothing to scoff at, and maybe the author of a book this interesting, original and well-written has earned those moments. Especially since this is such an essential book for Canadians to be reading right now.

January 23, 2018

Winter, by Ali Smith

I walked through a blizzard to buy Winter a week and a half ago, the new release by Ali Smith that I’ve been looking forward to since rereading Autumn in the autumn. A novel that helped me so much through the political turbulence that was 2017, contemporary events as rendered by literature so that they were just enough at a distance–it was clarifying, and gave me hope. And so it was strange to pick up Winter, the second book in Smith’s seasons sequence, and see that everything wasn’t okay after all. That one book is not going to cure us of what ails us, and the trouble continues through winter, a season during which nature settles down to sleep:

“God was dead: to begin with. / And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and art was dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead. Literature was dead. The book was dead. Modernism, postmodernism, realism, and surrealism were all dead…”

The novel opens the day before Christmas, with Sophia Cleves who is haunted by a disembodied head. Interestingly, this being an Ali Smith book where surrealism is so often present, it doesn’t occur to me until later when we see Sophia through the eyes of other characters, that there is anything unusual about a woman being haunted by a disembodied head. Autumn had the weirdness of people turning into trees, and the head spectre is the strangeness of Winter, and usually these are points that would make me want to give up, but so much else makes me go on. Autumn opens with the absurdity of a character’s engagement with a bureaucrat at the passport office, and Winter does a similar trick with Sophia Cleves’ visit to the bank before they close at noon on Christmas Eve—the insanity and banality of these kind of engagements with the state and/or corporation, the robotic interaction between a human being and a person who’s just doing their job—presumably a human being as well.

Sophia Cleves is not the centre of Winter (the dead of?), which is instead her son Arthur, Art. Who writes a blog called Art in Nature, about stepping in puddles and bird sightings. Art who I was all prepared to sympathize with, all set for him to be my hero—and then we realize that as a hero he’s terribly flawed. His furious girlfriend berating him for his lack of engagement with the world around him, for believing he’s doing his part through his blog posts (which are totally made up; Art never leaves the city), and not seeing what’s going on around them. He tells her, “We’re all right… Stop worrying. We’ve enough money, we’ve both got good assured jobs. We’re okay.”

“Forty years of political selfishness…” she continues. Political divides, the rise of fascism, plastic bags, etc. And he dismisses her, all of it. It’s the way it always been, he tells here. These things are cyclic. Whatever, whatever. We’ll be all right. It’s all fine.

I am Art. This revelation occurred to me around page 58. This, and the fact that I’m a climate change denier, which is a revelation I had on Friday when I got in an argument with my dad about why we see robins around in the winter. “It’s totally normal,” I say, because I read it somewhere once. “Climate change,” says my dad. “It’s getting warmer, it’s scary.” And I become a bit hysterical. I don’t want to be scared. I know climate change is real, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do about it in my tiny little life, and so to preserve my sanity I cling to signs that everything is normal. For example, about how when I bought this book, I walked through a snowstorm. A blizzard. In the winter. Things are fine.

The story takes place over Christmas at Sophia’s, when Art comes to stay with his girlfriend, who is not his girlfriend (who has just broken up with him due to his political selfishness) but instead a random woman he meets on the street, an immigrant from Croatia via Toronto with a penchant for Shakespeare who is struggling to get by. When they arrive, it becomes clear that Sophia is not okay, and so they call her estranged sister Iris to come and help, Iris the old hippie, who’d protested against nuclear weapons at Greenham Common, Iris who is the living embodiment of another way to face the world, a way that’s different from Sophia and Arthur’s denial—of seeing, of engaging, and doing her part to change the world. Insisting that, via Greenham Common, she really did.

But it’s not as simple as that, of one way being the good way to live, and the other being bad. There is a moment when Iris and Sophia say to each other, “I hate you.” “I hate you.” And then embrace, and lay down together in bed, and there it is, what has to happen. It isn’t easy. It isn’t neat. But somehow these characters, “see its the same play they’re all in, the same world, that they’re all part of the same story.”

That last line a reference to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (which I’ve never read or seen!), the play that makes Arthur’s not-girlfriend come to England, in fact. “A play about a kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning”…. “I read it and I thought, if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is in the end where the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated, and that’s the place on earth he comes from, that’s the place that made him, then that’s the place where I’m going.”

Art is how we get there, is Smith’s thesis in this novel. Through Shakespeare, yes, but also by seeing what happens when we put real things in fiction—things like Brexit, and the Grenfell Tower fire. What happens to books when we put the world in it is a question that’s addressed in the most wonderful way, Arthur’s not-girlfriend (whose name is Lux) telling the story of an old copy of Shakespeare kept in a library with the imprint of what was once a flower pressed between the pages. “The mark left of the page by what was once the bud of a rose.” She’d called it, “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen… it was a real thing, a thing from the real world.”

Which was exactly what had made Autumn so powerful to me, and otherworldly too in the ways in which it did engage with the world. It was why reading it again in October was such a big deal, to be present in the novel’s moment. It was why it was especially meaningful to keep reading and discover that the Shakespeare play Lux refers to is housed at the Fisher Library here in Toronto, right at the end of my street. Uncanny, isn’t it? The line between life and fiction blurred in the most fascinating fashion.

My favourite thing about Winter was everything, but I especially loved its connections to Autumn, which are lovely, subtle, and so unbelievably perfect. Except I read somewhere that Spring’s not out until 2020, and how am I supposed to wait that long?

December 10, 2017

2017 Books of the Year

January seems like a long time ago now, when I was reading Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy, and drinking out of a mug that broke in October. Do you remember? I don’t even remember who that reader was really, or all the readers in between, but all the same, I am grateful to all the books and authors who made my 2017 so rich, bookishly speaking. The following titles are the ones that have particularly stayed with me.

Hunting Houses, by Fanny Britt

The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline

The Dark Flood Rises, by Margaret Drabble

Glass Beads, by Dawn Dumont

Guidebook to Relative Strangers, by Camille T. Dungy

Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, by Norma Dunning

Sputnik’s Children, by Terri Favro

What is Going to Happen Next, by Karen Hofmann

Dr. Edith Crane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, by Suzette Mayr

Birds Art Life, by Kyo Maclear

My Conversations With Canadians, by Lee Maracle

F-Bomb: Dispatches From the War on Feminism, by Lauren McKeon

Boundary, by Andrée A. Michaud

We All Love the Beautiful Girls, by Joanne Proulx

Son of a Trickster, by Eden Robinson

 

Lillian Boxfish Take a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney

So Much Love, by Rebecca Rosenblum

The Slip, by Mark Sampson

Your Heart is the Size of a Fist, by Martina Scholtens

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, by Merilyn Simonds

Autumn, by Ali Smith

December 6, 2017

My Life With Bob, by Pamela Paul

It’s here! I’m on vacation, in my reading life at least. Which is the way it happens every year sometime in the first half of December when I realize that I’m done. And that for the rest of the month I’ll be reading books just for fun, because I want to, unabashedly and uncritically and for the love of it (including four big books I’ve been saving for the holidays when I take time off-line, biographies of Vita Sackville-West, Svetlana Stalin, P.K. Page, and Joyce Wieland). I’ll be reading books just like I read Pamela Paul’s book, My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, voraciously and with delight. I loved My Life With Bob, which I bought Friday, started reading Sunday evening, and finished last night whilst sitting on my kitchen table waiting for the pasta to boil.

It’s the kind of book that makes you want to write a book just like it, an autobiography through reading. I would write about reading Tom’s Midnight Garden when my first baby was born, and the night after the second when I sat up breastfeeding and reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Reading Joan Didion for the first time on a tram in Hiroshima, which was around the time I started reading Margaret Drabble, the secondhand bookstore in Kobe that’s responsible for my connection with some of the writers I love best. Reading Astonishing Splashes of Colour, by Clare Morrall when I had pneumonia, and Fear of Flying on a plane to London, and The Robber Bride when I was far too young to properly understand anything it could tell me. I really could write an entire book like this—except it probably wouldn’t be as good as Pamela Paul’s.

“Bob” is Paul’s “Book of Books,” a list she’s been maintaining for decades of all the books she’s read. A list without annotations, but who needs annotations, because when she sees the titles they call forth an array of memories and stories. Forcing herself to read the entire Norton Anthology in college, the books through which she learned about New York before she lived there, reading Kafka on an ill-fated high school exchange to France, and her own Catch-22—”the unquenchable yearning to own books—to own books and suck the marrow out of them and then to feel sated rather than hungrier still.” These essays are not necessarily about the books in question, but about what it means to be a book person, to identify as a reader and have literature underline one’s lived experience.

The essays are so incredibly good. They are subtle and unnerving and do precisely what essays are supposed to do, which is to catch their reader off-guard and take her somewhere she wasn’t expecting. As life itself tends to do, and we follow Paul through college, and then post-college travel to Thailand, through the precarity of her early career, and such a stunning sad essay about her short-lived first marriage. Which leads to self-help, of course, and of the time Paul took a writing course with Lucy Grealy (right??) and how she gradually became a writer, as well as a reader. (And oh, do not forget the essay about her relationship with a man who liked the “Flashman” series. Needless to say, it didn’t work out, all this in an essay on the impossibility of getting along with someone whose books you do not like.) And then the essays on reading with her children, and the one on her father’s death and Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose books, which don’t have so much to do with one another except that books are not so simple and so his death and the books become intertwined.

“Ultimately, the line between writer and reader blurs. Where, after all, does the story one person puts down on the page end and the person who reads those pages and makes them her own begin? To whom do books belong? The books we read and the books we write are ours and not ours. They’re also theirs.”

And as I begin my reading holidays, I’m quite ecstatic that this one is mine.

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Mitzi Bytes

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