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February 13, 2017

Lillian Boxfish Take a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney

The book everybody’s talking about this season, in my circles at least, is Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney, which I first saw described as Mad Men meets Mrs. Dalloway, or, in other words, as a love letter written directly to my heart. Mad Men because Lillian Boxfish worked in advertising, albeit thirty years before Peggy and Joan, writing copy for R.H. Macy, and she achieved some fame as the highest paid ad woman in America, as well as for her books of Dorothy Parker-esque light verse which sold well in their time. And Mrs. Dalloway because of how the novel is framed in a similar fashion, around a single evening, the last night of 1984 as Lillian Boxfish—old as the century [or actually a year older than that, if you want to get really specific, although she doesn’t]—walks around the New York City she’s seen change around her over the decades. Places on her walk prompting flashbacks to the fascinating story of her career, her marriage, her fame, and various downfalls. In some ways, this is a very easy book, definitely a breezy book, but that to use that point as a dismissal would be to ignore the richness of its language. This is the first book I’ve read in a while which had me pulling the dictionary off the shelf to look up new words, and that makes perfect sense, not just in that Rooney herself is a poet whose attention to language is unsurprising, but so too is her character, Lillian Boxfish (inspired by real-life figure Margaret Fishback). Which reminds me of what Joan Didion wrote about her time working at Vogue where, she writes:

“…I learned a kind of ease with words…a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page. In a caption of, say, eight lines, each line to run no more or less than twenty-seven characters, not only every word but every letter counted.”

Looking back at her life, Rooney has Lillian Boxfish contemplating the way the public’s relationship to words have changed, the way that the ads she wrote in the 1930s assumed a level of cleverness and awareness of language that contemporary advertising no longer seems to aspire to. Where she finds that same sense of fun and play with language, she remarks, is in the rap music she hears on the streets of New York, a city that’s so much grittier and dangerous than the city she arrived at in her youth. And yet all of it still draws her in, the sounds, the sights, the people all stirring her curiosity. She strikes up conversations and always asks a person’s name, and they get talking, and the moral of every single one of their stories is that people are people, regardless of time or place. Lillian Boxfish sees the humanity, the beauty, in all of it. And so we get to too.

February 5, 2017

Birds Art Life, by Kyo Maclear

“…what he really taught me was that the best teachers are not up on a guru throne, doling out shiny answers. They are there in the much beside you: stepping forward, falling down, muddling through, deepening and enlivening the questions.” —Kyo Maclear

In her book, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, my friend May Friedman refers to the value of “critical uncertainty in practice,” as opposed to “the generalizing trap of expert discourse.” Indeed the best blogs, and life itself, are all about “stepping forward, falling down, muddling through, deepening and enlivening the questions.” And while Kyo Maclear’s new memoir, Birds Art Life, is no blog—its prose is polished perfect; by design, the book is an object most exquisite—it has a bloggish spirit, with its wide vistas, room to wander, and the miraculous and serendipitous way that one thing seems to lead to another.

It’s not a book about birding, or even discovering birding—it’s a book that’s far more vicarious, and stranger than that. Here is a book about a year Maclear spent hanging out with a birder, figuring out what makes him tick. Developing a passion for birds in the process, but that’s not the point of this memoir. Yes, there are birds, but it’s also about family, and history, about caregiving, marriage, waiting, reading. About darkness, and prisons, and action in dangerous times. It’s about cities and nature, about the hearts of things and also their edges.

“Life and death. Survival and extinction. The common and the rare. The robust and the disappearing. I had come to see that birding was about holding opposites in tension. It elicited a twoness of feeling—both reassuring and dispiriting—especially in a city where so little landscape had survived modernity’s onslaught. In that twoness was a mongrel space between hope and despair.” —Kyo Maclear

I’ve loved Kyo Maclean’s work since reading her first novel, The Letter Opener, in 2008. In 2012, she released her second novel Stray Love along with the picture book, Virginia Wolf, and created a list at 49thShelf of Picture Books for Grown-Ups, and what I love about Birds Art Life is that she’s now herself created such a thing. First, because the book is illustrated with photographs of birds by her birding friend, Jack Breakfast, and also with Maclear’s own line-drawings, which add whimsical charm to the pages in a the fashion of Maira Kalman. And second, because of how the stories in this memoir contain echoes of her picture books, works that are so rich in thoughtfulness and wisdom—and now grown-up readers get to read it all too.

But it’s a particular kind of wisdom. I feel as thought Maclear herself would feel uneasy with being declared as wise, but it’s the kind of wisdom she’s talking about in the excerpt I quoted at the beginning of this post. The kind of wisdom that comes from falling down, from enlivening questions, rather than supposing there are even answers.

The year Maclear captures in her memoir is a dark one, although it comes with requisite moments of light. But she’s been caring for her father during a period of illness; she’s still negotiating her relationship with her mother; she worries about her younger son and identifies with his anxiety; close to the end of the year, two close friends of their family are imprisoned in Egypt and news of their fate is held in fear and uncertainty. And as I read this book yesterday, I was thinking that this is precisely the very book I need to be reading right now, not to escape from the things outside my door that make me afraid these but instead to “enliven the questions.” A book that—like so much that I’m reading these days, like so many books that are saving my life—helps me negotiate that space between hope and despair.

Leaning towards the hope, even.

January 30, 2017

Among the Ruins, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

What an absolutely crazy, awful and perfect week to be reading Ausma Zehanat Khan’s third novel in her series about Detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, Among the Ruins, which is published on February 14. Khan’s first book, The Unquiet Dead, won an Arthur Ellis Award, and I read her second novel last summer. In her latest, Khattak is on leave from his job with Canada’s Community Policing Department and has stolen away to Iran on his Pakistani visa, an escape from his troubles at home and a chance to reconnect with his cultural heritage. He has visions of taking in gorgeous sites and and eating delicious food, but any expectations of a holiday are disappeared when he realizes he’s being followed. Turns out a Canadian-Iranian filmmaker, Zahra Sobhani, has been murdered at a notorious prison and Khattak is quietly urged by the Canadian government, on behalf of a shadowy middlewoman, to find out what happened to her. Zahra Sobhani’s work had focussed on Iran’s Green Movement, which contested the results of the 2009 elections after a surge of populism and demands for democratic reform. The regime came down hard on these dissidents, but Zahra Sobhani would have thought her Canadian citizenship might have protected her—so why didn’t it? Khattak considers this question and becomes involved with a group of young people who’d been involved in the Green Movement, this line of narrative providing a powerful perspective on what it’s like to fight for freedom under an oppressive regime. Meanwhile, Khattak’s also receiving mysterious letters from someone who seems to be a political prisoner, and there are aspects of Zahra Sobhani’s death that refuse to make sense. Back home in Toronto, his partner Rachel Getty is perusing her own investigation involving crown jewels and an archivist at the Royal Ontario Museum, stolen jewels and a smuggling operation on the Caspian Sea.

It’s a mystery whose plot(s) take the shape of something created by a spirograph, which makes it all a little bit difficult to follow at times. This along with devastating sections of the narrative from a character being tortured and raped in prison mean that this isn’t a mystery you’d ever call “cosy,” but then I don’t know that a work of detective fiction has ever been more urgent and relevant than this one. Khan is a gorgeous writer, her sentences shining, and she so vividly evokes an Iran of striking contradictions, of beauty and ugliness, of progress and backwardness, of people who are repressed but who also own themselves in the most courageous, remarkable ways. With a PhD in International Human Rights Law, Khan writes from a remarkable foundation and knowledge of the implications of the stories she tells, and this underlines these stories with so much power.

Most powerful of all though: for readers to enter the mind of a Muslim-Canadian character. Not such a leap, really, but it certainly informed my perspective as I heard the news last night of a shooting at a mosque in Quebec City. Thinking of Esa Khattak: “He’d been cautious since he’d chosen the police as a career. Careful and measured consideration was the only way he knew how to answer the assumption of Muslim rage… Whether he enjoyed living his life on these terms when he could have been at ease, expressing the different sides of himself, the things that have enriched him, enriched, he believed, the fabric of his nation, was a separate question.”

January 16, 2017

Take Us To Your Chief, by Drew Hayden Taylor

I absolutely loved Take Us To Your Chief, by Drew Hayden Taylor, which was just as fun as its cover promised, and meaningful in a way I should have expected. Because while there is indeed something incongruous about First Nations’ science fiction, it’s only because I’ve never read any, not because it doesn’t make total sense. Is there a cultural group more familiar with notions of alien contact and invasion, for example, as in “A Culturally Inappropriate Armageddon,” in which broadcasters at a community radio station inadvertently summon attention from extraterrestrial beings? In “I Am…Am I,” scientists manage to create artificial intelligence, and the being (who is fed encyclopedias of knowledge) is drawn to notions of First Nations culture for its notions that all things, in fact, have souls, because the alternative is too hard to bear. In “Lost in Space,” an astronaut contemplates being Native in orbit: “What happens when you aren’t able to run your fingers through the sand along the river? Or walk barefoot in the grass? Or feel the summer breeze blowing through your hair?”

In “Dreams of Doom,” an Ojibway journalist learns that dream catchers are a government conspiracy, actually devices to spy on and control First Nations people and keep them in line: “You will notice that since Oka and Ipperwash, other than a few flare-ups here and there, things have been relatively quiet.” In “Mr Gizmo,” a suicidal teenage point is given a wake-up call by a toy robot, in keeping with his culture’s understanding that all things are imbued with a soul (including, awkwardly, your toilet). The narrator of “Petropaths” is a man whose troubled grandson learns to travel through time via ancient codes in petroglyphs. In “Superdisappointed,” the shockingly common conditions of housings on a First Nations reserve (houses with mould, substandard drinking water) causes a chemical effect that renders one man an actual superhero. And finally, in the title story, three reticent Objbway men are taken as ambassadors from Earth when aliens arrive on the planet.

I’ve cited nearly every story in the collection here because they were all of them hits, no misses. I read this book exclaiming at how fun it was, and appreciating the way in which Taylor plays with sci-fi tropes, and that each story pursues such a different line. And yet this collection is not merely an exercise in whimsy either—Taylor’s stories are fervent arguments as to the continuing tragedy of colonialism, which seems to be a solid through-line from the past and right into the future. Familiar ideas then, to those who’ve been paying attention, but the point is that too few are paying attention and maybe more might be with this fresh and utterly engaging context.

January 5, 2017

Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy

For me, the experience of reading Deborah Levy is a disorienting one, nothing immediately obscure and yet nothing is familiar either. Or maybe it’s that everything familiar is made a bit foreign under her curious lens. I have a copy of her non-fiction book Things I Don’t Want to Know, and while I’ve read it at least three times and even like it, I’ve never finished it. And I wonder if some of my difficulty comes down to her being South African—I had a similar problem with Katherine Mansfield; do writers writing in English from the Southern Hemisphere always read a little upside downly? Even though Levy is South African by way of England and for many decades, and certainly has an English sensibility too. I read her acclaimed novel Swimming Home in 2012, and don’t remember anything about it —possibly because I was eight weeks pregnant when I read it, an experience which never does much for me as a reader. Although my review reveals that I felt the same about it as I do about her latest book, Hot Milk: “At its murky depths…the trick isn’t to underline just what is significant in the text, but instead to understand that everything is.” Except that I went on to say that Swimming Home wasn’t immediately satisfying, but oh, Hot Milk was. Oh so much. An entirely excellent way to start off my 2017 reading year.

I wasn’t really sure though until about two thirds of the way in that with this book I was on solid literary ground. Where was the method, I wondered, in so much weirdness? Under-socialized daughter who happens to be a trained anthropologist (non-practising) arrives in Spain with her hypochondriac mother who claims to suffer from paralysis in her legs, at least sometimes. Daughter Sofia takes her mother to bizarre clinic with eccentric doctor, and embarks upon affairs with both the man who works in the injury hut on the beach (tending to her jellyfish stings, jellyfish in local parlance referred to as “medusas”) and an uber-cool German seamstress who embroiders a word onto a silk shirt and gives it to Sofia who thinks the word is “beloved.” The notion of being beloved empowers Sofia to be emboldened—and she flees to Greece to see her estranged father who lives there with his wife (an EU economist who is a disciple of austerity, who is just a few years older than Sofia) and their very young child. And it is here where she has an epiphany:

“‘My father only does things that are to his advantage,”‘ Sofia tells her father’s wife.

“She stares at me as if I am crazy. And then she laughs. ‘Why would he do things that are not to his advantage?'” 

This being a novel by Deborah Levy, what happens next isn’t entirely straightforward, but the entire narrative with all its different components (“When I started to write Hot Milk,” she says, “I asked myself: what are the dominant stories in 2014? And I thought they were debt, austerity, big pharma, migration, sexual identity and illness.”) But the brilliant thing is how they all come together, like stars in a galaxy, the image the introduces the novel, although the galaxy is on Sophia’s screensaver instead of in the sky—and also fractured into pieces because she’s dropped her laptop on a concrete floor and shattered the screen. Woven throughout the prose are lyrics from “Space Oddity” and David Bowie and his music (and his image) turn up through the book. And then the scene in which Sophia finds her mother’s footprint in the sand, as monumental as those discovered by another anthropologist, Mary Leakey in 1976—what they reveal about where we come from, who we are—is beautiful and awful

This is a novel about mothers and daughters like you’ve never read before, about selfishness and selflessness, about sea and sky, about all those things that are connected. Or not: “The tendrils of the jellyfish in limbo, like something cut loose, a placenta, a parachute, a refugee severed from its place of origin.”

Or someone sitting in a tin can, just say. Far above the world.

December 11, 2016

2016 Books of the Year

As always, I’ve failed in both my efforts to read everything I wanted to read in 2016 and also to keep my top ten to a number below twenty. Still, I think I’ve failed quite successfully here, and I’m really happy with how the year has read up. Thanks to the authors and readers who inspire me and make my reading life so much.

*

Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam

“I loved its humour, its prose, its quietness and detail. I loved its subtle subversions—second abortions and pregnant women with a drink. I loved the difference between the two characters’ voices, how richly the two were delineated, and that the title is tongue-in-cheek—in a Mad Men fashion, Alam’s novel takes the idea of “types” of women and a binary approach to womanhood and complicates the idea entirely to show that women can be whole, flawed, inexplicable and fully realized people whose lives and experiences are worth writing about, thinking about. Which really shouldn’t be such a revelation, and this is still a completely excellent book for those of us who already know.”

*

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett

“Bennett nicely situates the personal against the political, Nadia’s experience with anti-abortion politicking by church members (although not so avidly—these are reasonable people) and also about how one’s convictions become flexible when an unwanted pregnancy is a fact instead of an idea. She shows how a woman can choose an abortion and know it’s the right choice, but still mourn what she’s lost and wonder at the could-have-beens. That an abortion, like a lot of things that happen to people over the course of their lives, is a complicated, multi-faceted thing.”

*

Busker, by Nisha Coleman

“I kept laughing out loud, which is a mark of literary achievement. Though I also cringed—as one who has never mastered air-kisses, I recoiled at Coleman’s recounting of her first bisous and how she actually made cheek contact. She writes about being asked to play her violin in a hair salon, but how her own unruly do caused a great upset when she arrived. Or the man she met who wanted to perform songs he’d written, which turned out to be “sex songs” with lyrics like, “The horny bull wants a bouncy ride.” And she meets a lot of men, Coleman, and in the beginning, being lonely, takes them up on their invitations, until she realizes that she’s setting herself up for a lot of awkward interactions. She longs for the company of women friends as well, but these kind of relationships are harder to find. Not to mention that at the beginning of her time in Paris, Coleman hardly speaks French.”

*

Becoming Lin, by Tricia Dower

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

*

Experimental Film, by Gemma Files

“I spent Thanksgiving weekend—as summer turned into fall, the leaves turned into reds and oranges, as everything started to wither and die—reading Gemma Files’ Experimental Film, which was so fitting for the season. I absolutely loved it, and was not the only one to do so—the novel won the Shirley Jackson Award in the summer and the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic in September. It’s a book about horror movies, and the history of Canadian cinema, and motherhood, and parenting a child with autism, and there are ghosts and it gets creepy, and it gave me bad dreams—which I mean as a testament to the book’s power.”

*

The Trespasser, by Tana French

I’d preordered The Trespasser, French’s first book since 2014, and it seems fitting that my year of Tana French should have a new release by her within it. (I was in Barbados when I learned this new book was forthcoming. Imagine my joy: that there would be another Tana French when the books in the Waitrose bag were done!). And it was everything I’d hoped it would be—a return to tradition of the first four books, a narrator on the edge who doesn’t know how close she is, a strange and tricky murder whose solution is not immediately in sight. I love her plots, her characters, her humour, and that I learn insults like “wankstain” (which shows up in two books). I love her complicated women and men, and their aloneness, and the awkward ways her characters connect with each other. I love her prose, her twists, and her portrayal of Ireland post-boom. Can you tell that I love everything?

*

Little Labours, by Rivka Galchen

“These fragments are preoccupied with the poster for a Keanu Reeves flop; the tiresome anecdotes we tell our friends about our babies presuming they’ll be interested (and once those friends have babies, they even actually are); a mention of the woman who drowned her five children; a horrible woman whom Galchen regularly encounters in her building’s elevator who has strong feelings she must articulate about her baby’s size; on head shapes, their remarkability and otherwise; about troubling proclivities toward orange; one piece beginning, “Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions.”; about Frankenstein, Godzilla, Rumpelstiltskin, Lucille Ball, and The Tale of Genji (but not all in the same essay); about screen time, and what writers had children and who didn’t, and why writers’ children keep writing about closed office doors (and Galchen wonders why these doors are more troubling than the doors at Daddy’s work, downtown in a high rise building); about babies in art; and her complicated feelings about women’s writing and “women’s writing,” which she fascinatingly teases out.”

*

The Dancehall Years, by Joan Haggerty

“Joan Haggerty is an extraordinary writer, her prose Woolfian in its stream of consciousness, its immediacy. This is a saga sweeping four decades written in the present tense. And it’s true that when we talk about summer books, we sometimes mean that they’re a bit light in substance, but this is a different kind of summer book. It’s not difficult, and it’s got its own kind of lightness (strung together by summers as it is), but it’s not a “beach read.” Which isn’t to say it would be wonderful to read it at a beach, but still, it’s not the kind of novel that would blow away in the breeze.”

*

The Little Communist That Never Smiled, by Lola Lafon

“On the surface, Lola Lafon’s novel The Little Communist Who Never Smiled (translated from French by Nick Caistor) is a fictionalization of the life of Nadia Comaneci, but that (of course) is just a cover. What the book is really about is messaged in between the lines (or, quite literally, between the words). The Little Communist… is a book about the Cold War, the politicization of sport and womanhood, about deciphering codes and, fundamentally, this is a novel about punctuation.”

*

The Party Wall, by Catherine Leroux

“It’s always a good sign when the blank pages inside a book become riddled with notes and diagrams, as has been the case with my copy of the Governor-General’s Award/ Giller-nominated The Party Wall, by Catherine Laroux, prize-winner in its original French, translated into English by Lazer Lederhendler (Nikolski!). Not because the stories themselves in the novel are so difficult to figure out—in fact, they read beautifully with luminous prose (“Fall is approaching and the warmth of the South throbs on the horizon like a sack of gold at the foot of a rainbow”)—but because the challenge and the pleasure is discovering how all of it fits together. While the shape of most narratives is a horizontal line (with the inevitable bump for a climax), the shape of The Party Wall is multi-dimensional, arrows pointed in all four directions and connections that hold the whole thing fast.”

*

Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg

“Surprisingly, Birdie is not a heavy book, even with all the violence and tragedy. It’s as funny as it is sad, and more than that, it’s vibrant—powered by the voice of a woman who seemingly lies unconscious, which is kind of ironic, but there’s a lot going on inside Birdie’s mind, even as she’s got one half-opened eye on The Frugal Gourmet. As a character she’s rich and realized, and Lindberg never makes her a victim of her circumstances, her agency retained even in her lowest moments. Her very act of retreating into her mind, while passive from the outside, is a powerful gesture, and necessary for healing, for the possibility of a future.”

*

Double Teenage, by Joni Murphy

“It’s heavy, but it’s not. I read this book all day on Sunday, a few hours in the afternoon in my hammock. I devoured it, and loved the shape of the project—that this is a novel gesturing outwards, pointing to the world, using the world and its threads to build something new, offering structure, frameworks, where we hadn’t seen such a thing before. Daring to state that girlhood is significant, even if it’s a stage, and even if it’s a stage. I loved the poetry of Murphy’s prose, the power of her language. The power of the book full stop—it’s both the story of my life and also unlike anything I’ve ever read before.”

*

Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, by Kathy Page

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

*

I’m Thinking of Ending Things, by Iain Reid

“Clear the decks if you’re thinking about picking up this book, because you’re not going to be able to put it back down again. Don’t start reading it at night though or it’s going to be hard to fall asleep. I was intrigued by this psychological thriller, the debut novel by Iain Reid who’s previously been known for two award-winning heartwarming memoirs. Could he really pull off such a literary change of pace? But he does, and it’s breathtakingly good. Best of all, no one is going to compare this book to Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, but it’s something altogether different. It also manages to be completely creepy but actually free of gore and violence, which is an incredible literary feat. And finally, that a book can be so enthralling and disorienting at once is just incredible.”

*

Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple

“There are writers who sit down and painstakingly plan their books before they start writing, a mess of post-it notes and index cards, and one gets the feeling that Maria Semple is not one of them. The plots of her books resemble those dotted lines on maps in Saturday morning cartoons in which small children navigate space with curious and often dangerous diversions. Which is kind of a funny way to plot a book, but think of the joy you once got in running your finger along that line, and also of the momentum inherent in this kind of narrative, the briskness with which the reader is brought along for the ride. It also turns out that plot isn’t really the point is, but voice is, and Eleanor Flood’s is the kind of voice that’s hard to get out of your head.”

*

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

“For me, Smith has always been a masterful novelist whose works just kind of peter out before the end, and my explanation for that is that her stories are so excellent that the endings are always going to be a let-down and/or do we really expect her to come up with a novel like that and properly end it too? But in her fourth book, it seems she’s finally got the conclusion that comes with a gut punch, the last fifty pages or so finally bringing the pieces together, the patterns emerging. The conclusion of Swing Time is wonderful, devastating, and ambiguous in the most engaging fashion. Yes, the book is a bit bloated in the middle, but reading any of Smith’s prose is a pleasure. And all of it matters—you just don’t know how until the end.”

*

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

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

*

The Break, by Katherena Vermette

“The family tree at the beginning of the book is useful, but the reader soon becomes acquainted with the women of this family, so it won’t be referred to throughout. Momentum is strictly forward as the pieces begin to come together, Vermette deftly moving in and out of time to create a three-dimensional feel to the narrative—we come to feel we know this story from all sides. Four generations of a family, and how tragedy trickles down with all the goodness, the former not negating the latter though. As Vermette has made clear, this is a novel about women and about survival, a story that complements but also takes issue with stories and statistics about First Nations and Metis women as victims before they’re even people proper. But her characters are people here, people with flaws and foibles, strengths and weaknesses, and it’s the strength that endures: “‘It’s okay, my girl. It’s okay.’ Her answer to everything.”’

*

We Oughta Know, by Andrea Warner

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

*

Shrill, by Lindy West

From Shrill: ““Everything happened in those five years after my abortion. I became myself. Not by chance, or because an abortion is some kind of mysterious, empowering feminist bloode-magick rite of passage (as many, many—too many for a movement ostensibly comprising grown-ups—anti-choices have accused me of being), but simply because it was time. A whole bunch of changes—set into motion years, even decades, back—all came together at once, like the tumblers in a lock clicking into place: my body, my work, my voice, my confidence, my power, my determination to demand a life as potent, vibrant, public, and complex as any man’s. My abortion wasn’t intrinsically significant, but it was my first big grown-up decision—the first time I asserted unequivocally, “I know the life that I want and this isn’t it”; the moment I stopped being a passenger in my own body and grabbed the rudder.”

*

The Best Kind of People, by Zoe Whittall

While the entire book is fantastic, Whittall gets full points for her spectacular ending, however, which turns the story inside out and disturbingly rips us away from the singular perspectives of characters to reflect the wider culture of rape and sexual violence against whose context the entire novel has been taking place. Which is to say that this is not just a story about a family. And then the final sentence, which will haunt you long after you’ve finally finished reading, quiet, subtle, devastating and terrible, just like the injustice that is Justice, which isn’t anything like justice at all.

*

Notes From a Feminist Killjoy, by Erin Wunker

Notes is a way of starting. Trying. Essai. If a manifesto is a red rag, then a note is a building block, a puzzle piece. The reader responds not by charging, but by saying, Yes and, or Yes but. She doesn’t respond by tearing the whole thing down.

I love the way the narrative thread of Wunker’s book makes its way with seeming effortlessness. There is nothing laboured about how a discussion of rape culture leads to the Jian Ghomeshi trial leads to women coming together leads to a chapter on friendship. (Which references The Babysitters Club. Yes, and!!) Why are so few of our formative texts about female friendship? “What is it about female friendship that inspires such insipid descriptors?” What are relationships between women often so fraught?

“Is it too hard to write your own narrative and witness another’s, simultaneously?”

*

Five Roses, by Alice Zorn

“I loved Alice Zorn’s Five Roses, a novel that’s a love letter to Montreal, its neighbourhoods, and to the magic and serendipity of city life that is inevitably born from the fact of so many characters living in close proximity. It’s a bit of a mess, it is, city life, what with different cultures, and types of people, and old traditions and new traditions, and money and poverty, home and commercial enterprise, and history and the moment, which is now, and impossible to capture anyway…because the only thing that ever stands still in the city is the force of change. Zorn’s novel, however, manages to convey all this and not be a mess, disparate narratives woven together in a way that sparks magic but is left just untidy enough to still ring true.”

November 6, 2016

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett

the-mothersOf the many terrible consequences of abortion having been turned into an “issue”—a binary issue at that, a “debate”—is that the narratives have lost their meat. So caught up in the rhetoric, women become uncomfortable with the nuanced reality of the situation. And instead one is either for or against, pro or anti. Abortion is good or evil, a life-saver or murder. And what gets lost in all this opposition are the stories. That abortion is not an issue, but that it’s a fact of so many women’s lives, and it exists on a spectrum with a million degrees of experience.

In The Mothers, the debut novel by Brit Bennett—which has received all kinds of buzz and which I finally bought after hearing it praised over and over again, and I’m so glad I did—those experiences are explored over a half decade in the lives of three young people connected to an African-American church community in a coastal California town. Although it might be more accurate to say say that two of the three are disconnected— Nadia Turner’s mother had been a devout churchgoer, but she’d killed herself six months before Nadia gets herself knocked up by Luke, the wayward son of the preacher. There’s never a doubt in Nadia’s mind about what she must do—she’s got a scholarship to the University of Michigan, and this is her ticket out of a life as narrow and confining as her mother’s was, and she doesn’t want to relive her mother’s mistakes, who had Nadia when she was just 17. And so Nadia gets an abortion, setting herself back upon the path that she’d envisioned for herself. Though there is still a summer to get through before she can finally get away, and she’s forced into taking a job as the assistant to Luke’s mother. Spending more time at the church than she ever had before, she develops a friendship with Aubrey, a girl her age who joined the church after being rejected by her own mother (and fleeing abuse from her mother’s boyfriend). Both girls motherless then, and Nadia has rejected motherhood, and every chapter begins with a chorus of voices, “the mothers” from the church, women whom Barbara Pym would have termed as “excellent.” Unbeknownst to both girls, they are being watched over.

With sweeping narrative maneuvering, Bennett conducts this cast of people through years and great changes in their own lives. We see Nadia moving away and excelling in all the ways that had been imagined for her, and how she cannot manage to escape the decision she made to end her pregnancy, how she carries the experience with her. And how too it dwells within Luke, who fails to support Nadia properly, but then theirs had never been a proper relationship anyway, and as his life remains at a standstill, Nadia’s abortion comes to stand in for all the opportunities he has lost and a source of his pain. And for Aubrey too who becomes close to Luke and has her own pain that needs healing.

Bennett nicely situates the personal against the political, Nadia’s experience with anti-abortion politicking by church members (although not so avidly—these are reasonable people) and also about how one’s convictions become flexible when an unwanted pregnancy is a fact instead of an idea. She shows how a woman can choose an abortion and know it’s the right choice, but still mourn what she’s lost and wonder at the could-have-beens. That an abortion, like a lot of things that happen to people over the course of their lives, is a complicated, multi-faceted thing.

The Mothers was born out of Brit Bennett’s MFA thesis at the University of Michigan, and there were some edges of the narrative that whispered (but didn’t scream) to me: first book. Not in the usual sense—the story is substantial, developed, and written with deep empathy and understanding of the experiences of its characters. This book is solid. But I could also see how this is the work of a writer at the start of her career—some of the set-ups were familiar, the kind of thing that you read in a lot of first books, a seam or two visible. But that this could be both conspicuously a first book and be as ambitious as it is, and not only be reaching but be exceeding its grasp? How incredible is that?

The Mothers is an outstanding achievement, one of the best books I’ve read this year, the kind of book that leaves its reader waiting for whatever its author has coming up next.

(And in the meantime, read her essay, “I don’t know what to do with good white people.”)

October 31, 2016

Experimental Film, by Gemma Files

experimental-filmI spent Thanksgiving weekend—as summer turned into fall, the leaves turned into reds and oranges, as everything started to wither and die—reading Gemma Files’ Experimental Film, which was so fitting for the season. I absolutely loved it, and was not the only one to do so—the novel won the Shirley Jackson Award in the summer and the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic in September. It’s a book about horror movies, and the history of Canadian cinema, and motherhood, and parenting a child with autism, and there are ghosts and it gets creepy, and it gave me bad dreams—which I mean as a testament to the book’s power. I liked it so much, and found it had uncanny connections to Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different, which I read right after—both protagonists are socially awkward, intellectually brilliant and unmoored in their own lives. In fact, I’d really like to go out for drink with both of them.

I was grateful for the chance to ask some questions about the book to Gemma Files for a feature at 49thShelf. I hope you’ll check it out and enjoy her thoughts on film and literature, the haunting capabilities of both, about how the movie Candyman inspired the book’s structure, the influence of Shirley Jackson, and what it means for literature to be weird.

Read it here. 

October 25, 2016

The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, by Lola Lafon

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On the surface, Lola Lafon’s novel The Little Communist Who Never Smiled (translated from French by Nick Caistor) is a fictionalization of the life of Nadia Comaneci, but that (of course) is just a cover. What the book is really about is messaged in between the lines (or, quite literally, between the words). The Little Communist… is a book about the Cold War, the politicization of sport and womanhood, about deciphering codes and, fundamentally, this is a novel about punctuation.

the-little-communistThe book begins with Nadia’s performance on the uneven bars at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. (I call her Nadia. Everybody did. I wasn’t born until 1979, but I came into a world where girls were still gymnastics-mad and it occurs to me that gymnasts from that time are the only Olympic athletes I’m familiar with who aren’t from my country. From a very young age, I knew who Nadia Comaneci was.)

Her victory hung on point of punctuation, kind of—a decimal. Her score of 10.0 had never been achieved in gymnastics before and therefore the display screen didn’t have the capacity to show it. Lafon shows the confusion and crisis and judges and administrators realized what had happened and the scoreboard read 1.0, and the implications of this—this was an athlete from whom an entirely different system of success would be designed. “New numbers need to be invented. Or just abandon numbers altogether.”

On page 18, Lafon describes Comaneci: “Her arched back is a comma.” Which is significant because of how conspicuous commas are in the text. Comma splices are scattered throughout the novel, and I had to consider their implication, what they do to sentences. How in English they join unlike ideas in slightly jarring ways that makes the reader think twice, and it made me think about Romania in the 1970s and 1980s, a point in between the Cold War divides of East and West. Later in the book, Lafon shows Comaneci delivering an address in 1984 to announce her retirement from competition, an address that was written for her by the writer who composes all her official speeches: “He writes them out in short lines with commas so that she can pause for breath between them.” But in this address there are no commas. “She had not planned to be silent for so long she is simply searching for the comma, she thought she saw it but there wasn’t one, her words are chosen for her one last time, the comma jumps from one word to the next, like the decimal point: one point nought nought, she raises her eyes to those who have no words…”

The echo of the uneven bars creaking at the Montreal Olympics is “an uneven punctuation for her body as it folds itself around them.” Periods are replaced in between the letters of rival Olga Korbut’s first name in a Man From U.N.C.L.E.-like Cold War allusion (O.L.G.A). In her imagined exchanges with Comaneci, Lafon considers the punctuation used in newspaper coverage about Comaneci, “exclamation marks that compete with the ellipses.” There are references to the story of Nadia being written, rewritten (and indeed they are in Lafon’s imagined exchanges, which cast doubt on everything represented by facts. Truth is nowhere. Everything is suspicious.) and defying translation.

And then there is the period, the decimal point in another form. Full stop. Also menstruation (which I don’t think shares its name with a punctuation mark in the novel’s original French, interestingly, although apparently the French term for menstruation means “rules,” so it’s equally firm), which is hugely significant in this text. The arrival of the period signals the beginning of the end of Comaneci’s career, no matter her coach’s and manager’s efforts to stymy the effects of puberty through training and pharmaceuticals. But in the context of Romanian history, it has wider and more disturbing ramifications regarding forced pregnancy tests women were submitted to to eliminate instances of abortion, the way that not only Nadia had her body regarded as property of the state. And really, this sense of ownership over women’s bodies is a universal thing—anyone else who’s not an Olympic gymnast ever been chastised for not smiling?

And yet Lafon avoids obvious and facile comparisons with East and West with her imagined dialogue with Comaneci, who questions the ways in which women and athletes in the West are necessarily more free. While never minimizing the negative effects of life under the Ceaușescu regime, Lafon complicates notions that here and now is necessarily better than then and there. While Romanian people had nothing during the 1980s, Lafon is reminded in imagined conversations that sometimes nothing is better than insatiable materialist desires. All this so that we’re left with a notion of history and truth that is as elusive as Nadia herself, always just slipping out of one’s grasp.

“You quietly airbrushed your mistakes…could we say that?”

“Yes, exactly. I rewrite everything! But….discreetly.” 

Thank you for the International Festival of Authors for inviting me to be a part of your blog tour and giving me the opportunity to read this truly excellent book. 

Lola Lafon’s appearances at Toronto’s 2016 International Festival of Authors
(Supported by the Consulate General of France):
Monday October 24 8pm “Interpreting the Past” (Reading/Round Table)
Wednesday October 26 6pm “EUNIC: Writing History Telling Stories” (Reading/Round Table)

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October 18, 2016

The Party Wall, by Catherine Leroux

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It’s always a good sign when the blank pages inside a book become riddled with notes and diagrams, as has been the case with my copy of the Governor-General’s Award/ Giller-nominated The Party Wall, by Catherine Laroux, prize-winner in its original French, translated into English by Lazer Lederhendler (Nikolski!). Not because the stories themselves in the novel are so difficult to figure out—in fact, they read beautifully with luminous prose (“Fall is approaching and the warmth of the South throbs on the horizon like a sack of gold at the foot of a rainbow”)—but because the challenge and the pleasure is discovering how all of it fits together. While the shape of most narratives is a horizontal line (with the inevitable bump for a climax), the shape of The Party Wall is multi-dimensional, arrows pointed in all four directions and connections that hold the whole thing fast.

The Party Wall is several stories, and while one might argue it’s more a story collection than a novel, I have more fun considering it as the latter. These stories could probably all each stand on their own but the whole is much more than the sum of its parts, which come together in the beginning as a series of curiosities: a woman in Bathurst, New Brunswick, discovers she is not the biological mother of the son she gave birth to; a married couple with a cosmic connection (and he actually the Prime Minister of a future, post-apocalyptic Canada) discover they are twins who were long ago given up for adoption; and a brother and sister (a police officer and an Olympic runner) in San Francisco sit by the bedside of their difficult mother who is dying, and each try to come to terms with the fact that they may now never discover the identity of their father. These descriptions might give the impression that these aren’t stories that are steeped in realism, that they belong to a nether or even an ether world, but that’s not the case. There is magic and there is wonder, and while these situations are indeed highly unlikely, look around you and consider what isn’t.

If these stories are rooms in a house, the walls of the house (that connect them and divide them) are a story on another scale, one that takes place over the course of a single morning in Savannah, Georgia, two sisters wandering the rough and familiar edges of their neighbourhood. From details in the larger-canvassed stories, the reader understands premonitions of danger, this offering the book in parts the momentum of a novel—and where the danger is actually found is probably not where the reader expected. Anticipation of narrative links also urge the reader through the book, and the revelations are never cheap or disappointing, instead adding texture to the richness of the narrative.

In addition to the narrative links, the stories are joined by references to unfortunate cats (whose names include Bastard, Wretch and Shabby), a fixation on horizons (“the boundary between the two worlds, and what manages, unbeknownst to scientists and the gods, to travel from one to the other”) and walls that get knocked on, punched in, listened though and lived in. And yes, the splendid writing, twists that bend your mind, and a story that stretches across a continent, across years and lives, and binds them all together.

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