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May 22, 2017

Glass Beads, by Dawn Dumont

“Why is Friends on every channel?” is a question posed at the beginning of one of the inter-connected short stories in Dawn Dumont’s new book, Glass Beads, and the answer to that question is the same as the answer to another one: What makes Glass Beads so compulsively readable? A cast of compelling characters each so different and singular that their interactions create interesting conflict, plus sparkly witty dialogue. In the same way that Friends is a show you can have playing in the background, I read Glass Beads in two days. And yet—to say the book is similarly easy (the kind of thing you can have playing in the background) is to undermine its substance, the darkness at its margins and core. But still: the darkness is not the whole point.

Last week on twitter, Tracey Lindberg asked a kind of rhetorical question about the possibility of Indigenous beach reads. A rhetorical question because her point is that Indigenous literature is pushed to be issues-based and doesn’t get to be fun, light and joyful in the way that other literatures do. And the closest answer I have to the idea of an Indigenous beach read is Dawn Dumont’s work, including Glass Beads, which follows Rose’s Run (a book I loved) and Nobody Cries at Bingo. Her work is as smart and funny as you’d expect from a writer whose background includes law and standup comedy, never shying away from big issues and politics (in Rose’s Run, a demon draws on the strength of women to seek justice for innumerable wrongs committed against them by men; in the context of missing and murdered Indigenous women, this is no small statement) but written with a decidedly commercial bent.

Billed as a collection of connected short stories, Glass Beads actually works astoundingly well as a novel, told from four perspectives between  1993 and 2008. Friends Nellie and Julie whose ties go back to childhood on their reserve, although they’re very different. Nellie is stubborn, smart and determined to become a lawyer, whereas Julie is unsettled, rattled by early loss and childhood traumas and given a lot of latitude because of her beauty. Nellie is in love with Everett, who is gorgeous but a bit dumb, and unwilling to give her the commitment she longs for. Abandoned by his parents, Everett carries his own baggage. Rounding out their foursome is Taz, who knows Nellie through the Native Students Council at their university and Everett because Taz buys drugs from his roommate. Taz and Julie become an unlikely couple, on-again and off-again as Everett and Nellie are.

The ties between the four of them deeply wound, binding, ever changing, time and experience bringing them together and apart. Nellie achieves her career goals, but find that there is still much to yearn for. Julie drifts, loses her way, and comes home again, at one point become incarcerated for her part in a fight, and is forced to partake in a substance abuse program even through she doesn’t have a substance abuse problem—but the carpentry program was full and that’s what happens when you’re a human being instead of a statistic. Taz moves from work with the provincial government to become Grand Chief of the Provincial Council of First Nations, with Nellie supporting him professionally. And Everett finally begins to the connect with the culture that was stolen from him when he lost his father, his ties to Nellie cemented when she gets pregnant with their child.

That we can read a book from four different perspectives and still not know everything, and that Dumont can create tension and shocking moments with that space beyond the limits of what we know about these characters is a testament to Glass Beads‘ craftsmanship, and why I consider it a novel more than stories—the book as a whole is deftly plotted. Its characters change and grow, harden yet remain vulnerable, get together and fall apart, and pick up the pieces again, and here we are witnessing all of it. We feel like we know them. Like a certain 1990s’ sitcom, but infinitely more interesting.

May 17, 2017

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

Imagine Lucky Jim on acid, is how I’d pitch Suzette Mayr’s new novel, Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, to you, a book whose momentum is swift but in the trajectory of a downward spiral, circling the drain. Just like the cover, actually, hypnotic spiral. Of jackrabbits, instead of the unicorns which had been the overriding motif in Mayr’s Monoceros, which I loved in 2011. Rabbits not like copulating like, but instead the hallucinatory sort—Harvey and Alice in Wonderland, maybe even a bit Donnie Darko. (Please check out Mayr’s answers to CBC Books’ Magic 8 questionnaire to discover the surprising way in which Downton Abbey also infiltrated the novel.)

It’s a campus novel and, new start, new year, Dr. Edith Vane starts out with the best intentions. Her PhD. thesis on African-Canadian pioneer Beulah Crump-Withers is finally about to be published, she has tenure, and a brand new wardrobe, including the long cardigans and a pair of expensive shoes with hourglass heels. To contend with other challenges, she has her therapist on the line who assures Edith that she is indeed the architect of her own life. Never mind the the challenges start piling on—Edith’s evil thesis supervisor reappears in her life as the department’s honorary chair, Edith’s new girlfriend is proving noncommittal and all Edith wants to do is get married; the only graduate student she’s supervising quits her mentorship, plus the Crawley Hall, the brutalist building that is home to them all, is crumbling around her, elevators jamming, maggots dropping from the ceiling, sinkholes devouring the parking lot, and jackrabbits holed up in classrooms, their droppings scattered down the hall. Or maybe that part is just in Edith’s mind. It doesn’t help that she keeps downing bottles of wine.

The momentum of this novel, which I read in two delightful days, comes from the pile-on of absurd tragedies—how could things get any worse? Suzette Mayr taking care to immediately answer the question. And yet it’s so funny, and the energy, and the satire of campus bureaucracy is so spot-on and delicious that I would never ever call this book that goes down-down-down anything like a downer. I loved it.

April 24, 2017

Sputnik’s Children, by Terri Favro

There’s no point in writing a lead-up, and I’m just going to say it: I loved Terri Favro’s Sputnik’s Children in a way that makes my heart feel like it’s on the brink of exploding and my new mission in life is now to persuade everyone to read it. It begins with our heroine, Debbie Reynolds Biondi, creator of the cult comic hero Sputnik Chick: Girl With No Past. She’s a bit washed up, strung out on pills, travelling from one hotel convention room to another, tired of her fans asking her why she’s yet to write Sputnik Chick’s origin story. The reasons are complicated, but namely: that it’s actually her own story. Debbie is Sputnik Chick, a Cold War nostalgic, delivered to our universe from a parallel one (Atomic Mean Time) that was destroyed by nuclear war in 1979, Debbie sacrificing her life, true love, and her identity to deliver humanity to the safety of Earth Standard Time (which you and I know as “here and now”) the parallel worlds safely merged.

But its complicated, and Favro takes us back to the beginning, to Debbie’s upbringing in Atomic Mean Time, a realm not unlike our own except for key differences—the Cold War is actual, there is no peace movement in the 1960s or calls for nuclear proliferation. From a young age, Debbie is visited by a figure known as “The Trespasser,” although he only sometimes turns up in her realm with an awareness that she is the chosen one who is going to save the world. Jumping in and out of time, The Trespasser complicates Debbie’s past, present and future, but the prophesies prove correct when Debbie is enlisted to save the world as the inevitable nuclear showdown finally arrives.

So it’s all true, except that Debbie’s addicted to booze and pills and her sister reminds her that she’s always been one to make up stories to hide the traumatic facts and experiences she’d prefer to avoid. Although Debbie’s a compelling enough storyteller that we believe her story to be true. In fact, we want it to be true. And the novel exists in this fascinating state of narrative possibility, in-betweenness, a puzzle whose pieces all fit but the surface has two faces. Not to mention the story itself is exhilarating, so hard to put down, rich with comic book twists, explosions, villains, and familiar tropes that are fresh and surprisingly rendered.

It’s A Wrinkle in Time meets Wonder Woman—with a literary twist of Madeline Sonik’s award-winning Cold War essay collection Afflictions and Departures. And easily one of my favourite books of 2017.

April 17, 2017

A Shimmer of Hummingbirds, by Steve Burrows

Last year I made the error of inviting my birder friend Julia to an event in early May, to which she gave her regrets that the event would coincide with the peak of spring migration. “Sigh,” she wrote to me. ” I’ll be busy oohing-and-ahhhing at some warbler or another…” Because in spring, as birders and friends-of-birders know, there are some things you can count on. And adding to that list of things, at least for the past four years, is a new title in Steve Burrows’ Birder Murder Mystery series, which I’ve been reading with such pleasure since A Siege of Bitterns in 2014. This is my version of spring migration. And the best news: the books keep getting better and better.

A Shimmer of Hummingbirds begins with Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune departing for Colombia for a birdwatching trip, although everybody knows he’s really going to find out what happened to his brother in the lead-up to the tragic crime for which he was charged—and the other Jejeune has been on the run from the law ever since, which complicates things. Meanwhile, Domenic’s girlfriend Lindy knows what’s going on, but her own security becomes threatened with the release of a shady figure from Domenic’s past. And it turns out Domenic’s not safe either as his arrival in South America has raised red flags for the guide and company behind his birding tour—the same outfit his brother had been involved with. And then at the centre of it all, back at Saltmarsh, a young accountant has been murdered and she has ties to a group of investors each of whom has something to hide. There are barn owls. And Jejeune’s former boss and nemesis is brought in to handle the case, which makes things awkward for Jejeune’s colleagues…particularly when it becomes clear how much better everything is without the quiet and brooding Jejeune around…

The pieces come together very nicely, and I’ll forgive the part where Jejeune turns up in a foreign country again and just happens to run into a friend. I loved this book, and read it with pleasure. I continue to admire so much that Burrows has provided his complicated detective with an excellent relationship with a fantastic woman who is one of the best characters in the book. The plot is not too crowded, the momentum perfect and compelling, and while the ending was completely satisfying, Burrows also manages a mini-cliffhanger that leaves me altogether ready for the arrival of Book 5 next spring.

April 6, 2017

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, by Merilyn Simonds

Even if I wasn’t scheduled to be on a panel with Merilyn Simonds in Hamilton this weekend talking about digital storytelling (but I am! It’s gritLIT and you can buy tickets here. Tickets are also still available for my blogging workshop!) I would have picked up her new book, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, in a  heartbeat. Because it’s a beautiful hardcover book about books whose endpapers are to die for. And the story itself is a magnificent hybrid of memoir and non-fiction (“Did you know”, I kept imploring everybody who would listen, “that the invention of the spinning loom would lead to a surfeit of rags, which would help bring about a revolution in the production of paper? What a wondrous thing is that. How can you go about as a bookish person in the world without know that fact?”) about Simonds’ experience producing a book via old-fashioned letterpress while at the same time rendering a digital version.

This is not a book that bridges the digital/print divide, but instead a book that asserts that there is no such thing. Simonds was an early adopter of e-reading technologies and is savvy about and grateful for the possibilities these hold for writers and readers and alike, but she also knows that it’s not reason to throw the baby out with the library. “Why is it that we assume each new thing condemns what went before as obsolete? We know that’s not true. We can read a book, stream a Netflix movie, then listen to the radio as we drive to the opera, read a precis of the narrative on our iPads as we wait for a performance to begin./ We can have it all.”

I wrote all over this book, underlinings and paragraphs bracketed. It articulated so much of what I know as a booklover, and what I’ve learned in the last few months as I’ve become an author: “I’m just the writer. I used to think that was important, that the entire scaffolding of the publishing world was built on the foundation of the written word. Now that I am deep inside this architecture, I see that I’m just another two-by-four, doing my bit to keep the entire edifice from collapsing in a heap.”

Simonds takes her reader through the process of producing a book of short pieces for a small press in Kingston run by the inimitable Hugh Barclay. Along with the story of her own relationship to print, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint is about Barclay’s career as an “innovator” and how he found his way into a job designing wheelchairs and how that led to his ownership of a printing press and the advent of Thee Hellbox Press—sounds inevitable, right? The book is divided five main sections—Paper, Type, Ink, Press and Book—and Simonds outlines her experience at each stage of the process, along with fascinating historical context—like how rags led to paper, or how Koreans had come shockingly close to creating moveable type but the complexity of their alphabet kept them from doing so, or how books weren’t stood up on a shelf as we know them before the 1700s and instead lay on their sides with pages facing and the owner would write the title of the book on the page-side.

These rich details are what propels the plot forward, as does Simonds’ evident passion for the entire project and books in general, and, ultimately, the production of her book with Hugh. At the same time, she is busy creating a digital version of the book with her son, a designer, who is also tasked with creating the woodcuts for the print edition (and he has to create small icons of these for the e-book, because the technology doesn’t allow the prints to appear as shadows beneath the text the way that they can on paper). Learning about the ins and outs of the processes, print and digital, the ways in which they are similar and different, complementary and wholly foreign, was so illuminating.

For me, this book never misses a mark, which makes my favourite part of it seem a bit ironic. When Merilyn discovers a fingerprint faintly smudged on a corner of a page from her book, and worries they might have to go back a step in a slow and tedious process. But Hugh shrugs off her concern: “We’re not striving for perfection here. That fingerprint—that’s what makes this copy distinct. Human. It says, ‘Somebody printed this.'” Which is kind of the whole point.

April 5, 2017

Autumn, by Ali Smith

I am baffled by Ali Smith’s new novel, Autumn, but not in a  bad way. Not remotely. Whereas I found her previous book, the much acclaimed How To Be Both a bit much—it was long. It was also half-set in a world that’s not my own, which is one of my failures as a reader, that I am so much less engaged with literature that isn’t a reflection of my own circumstance. But Autumn is firmly set right now, give or take nine months or so. In the aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder and the Brexit vote in June, and just this general sense of undoingness and that the world is not quite what we knew it to be. Which is what I count on literature for, to make the pieces into something that tells a story. This is why I’ve never thought that literature should be that axe to shatter the frozen ice inside me or whatever, but more like a paddle to steer us to shore.

Smith’s character picks up a copy of A Tale of Two Cities, it was the best of times, it was worst of times…: “The words had acted like a charm. They’d released it all, in seconds. They’d made everything happening stand just far enough away. / It was nothing less than magic./ Who needs a passport?/ Who am I? Where am I? What am I?/ I’m reading.”

This too: “…whoever makes up the story makes up the world.”

And now you should read Laura Miller’s review of Autumn, which was most of the reason I picked up this book (and I was definitely not sorry.) 

March 19, 2017

So Much Love, by Rebecca Rosenblum

My friend Rebecca Rosenblum’s third book and debut novel So Much Love launched on the same day my book did last week, although I’d picked up a copy (from Indigo’s “New and Hot Fiction” table) two days before. I’d read it years ago in manuscript form and really liked it, and it was to my great joy to discover as I read the book last week that everything I remember loving about the first version—lines and scenes and settings—were still there, but that all the pieces of the story had been pulled together into a beautiful package that reads as seamless. It’s an incredible book, about the disappearance of a young woman and the devastation her absence leaves, and we also hear from the woman as well, and from a poet who’d been murdered in an act of domestic violence years before in a story with strange parallels to the central story. But not so many parallels—maybe vague connections are a better descriptor. Because to say there were parallels suggests that two characters’ stories might be alike, or that the the people who populate the novel are anything like types, because they’re not. And that’s so remarkable. The specificity with which the novel’s characters are evoked, every single one of them. I am awed by how Rebecca manages to imagine a 50-year-old male college professor reflecting on decades of marriage, a single mother desperate at her grown daughter’s absence, a kidnapper, a waitress, a poet, a builder. Each of them so stunningly realized—it’s magic. Sometimes the characters are so singular that it makes me wonder why—Catherine Reindeer, mature student, married young, works as a waitress, taking just one class a semester because she’s determined to avoid student debt. Which comes full circle, because, why? Because that’s who she is. These people are alive, and their city has its specific geography, and they all have their histories, and not all of it is delineated, but it’s there. We know it’s there. The whole novel was so enveloping, which is what hooked me, even though this is not a novel you’d call “deftly plotted” or “chockfull of suspense.” Which is not to say it’s boring or slow, but it more cerebral. It’s a novel whose atmosphere the reader steeps in rather than races through, and I loved that. Even though it wasn’t always easy—Rebecca avoids sensationalizing violence and only alludes to the worst bits, but it’s all very emotional wrought. There is so much sadness…and yet. And the title then, the so much love. Which is, of course, the whole point.

I loved this book. It’s an incredible achievement. I’m so proud of my friend.

February 26, 2017

Son of a Trickster, by Eden Robinson

I went to see Eden Robinson at the Toronto Reference Library at the beginning of the month where she was in conversation with Miriam Toews. It was a perfect pairing, these two understated, seriously brilliant and totally hilarious writers together, and many of their sentences would trail off into hysterical laughter. The effect of all this being that when I finally picked up Son of a Trickster, its voice in my head was Toews’ cool easy cadence. This is not a complaint. Like Toews does, Robinson’s work is an uncanny breezily brutal, absurd humour juxtaposed with weighted tragedy, and there doesn’t actually appear to be anything of a juxtaposition at all.

I loved Son of a Trickster, the first novel in ten years by Haisla/Heiltsuk Robinson. (“Her two previous novels…were written before she discovered she was gluten-intolerant and tend to be quite grim,” so goes her cheeky author bio.) At her TPL event, Robinson explained that this is a novel born of the 2008 financial meltdown, a problem that didn’t affect Canada so extensively, except for in small pockets we don’t hear about a lot, such as Robinson’s hometown of Kitimat, BC, where 535 workers lost their jobs when the pulp and paper mill closed in 2010. It’s in the aftermath of this that we find her main character Jared, sixteen-years-old and doing his best to keep things afloat. He makes money baking pot cookies and selling them to his classmates, but then he turns that money over to his father’s landlord so he won’t be made homeless as he struggles with addiction. Which Jared’s mother can know nothing about, because she’s terrifying (when she discovered a former boyfriend beating up Jared, she attacked the guy with a nail gun, fastening him to the floor) and if she finds out Jared is supporting the father who abandoned them, he might have (justifiable) reason to fear for his life.

The novel begins when Jared was small, when his parents were still together and in love, and it would be his father’s job loss at which point the whole arrangement falls apart. Although all was not always idyllic—his maternal grandmother had never liked Jared, as we learn in the novel’s first sentence. “‘Trickster,'” she tells him. “‘You still smell like lightning.'” As Toews herself pointed out at the event with Robinson, the title of the novel suggests it’s not exactly a spoiler to say that Jared’s grandmother might be onto something. And this book, the first of a trilogy (yay!), is the story of Jared’s journey to realizing exactly what that is. As he continues to hold his family afloat, suddenly the things he’s known to be true are revealed as fictions, and stories themselves take on a disturbing realism. About two thirds of the way through Son of a Trickster, a reader will feel herself stuck inside a Stephen King novel, which I mean in the very best way possible.

I loved it. The dialogue was so sharp and real, easing back and forth like a squash game at which everyone’s stoned, but never ever missing its mark. The characters are heartbreakingly realized, with soft spots and sharp edges, fuck-ups, and triumphs. I’d read reviews that the plot was uneven, but I didn’t experience it that way. While the book didn’t exactly fly by, I didn’t want it to. When I got to the end, I wanted there to be more, and thankfully there is more.

Next book, please.

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.

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