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Pickle Me This

July 16, 2018

Summer Reading

When we arrived at our rental cottage up north last Saturday, I was surprised to feel troubled, because here we were in the most idyllic place imaginable on a glorious summer day, the beginning of a splendid week. But it was unease that I encountered—so slight but visceral—as I climbed the hill, took in the vista, and walked the paths I last walked almost a year ago. A few moments before it all clicked: it had been the books, of course. And also the weather—last summer the sky was always dark and brooding and there were storms every day. It was such an uneasy summer, climate-wise, and the books I’d brought along with me only complemented the atmosphere. It is possible that anyone would feel disturbed upon returning to the place where they’d read Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, I mean, or experienced the intensity of Liane Moriarty’s Truly, Madly, Guilty. Wilde Lake too, which was a modern take on To Kill a Mockingbird, but with more sinister undertones. Our last night there I started reading a Louise Penny novel and the weather in the opening chapter was identical to the thunder storm crashing outside our cabin window, and I began to wonder if the line between fiction and reality had become blurred. It really was intense, all of it, nine books in a week the definition of intensity anyway. So that when I arrived back there, it all came back, those incredible books I’d been so wrapped up in.

Last year’s summer reads.

It’s funny how books stay with you, and not always in the ways you’d expect. I really enjoyed Jessica J. Lee’s Turning: A Year in the Water last year at the cottage, but it wasn’t a book I expected to return to. I gave that book away in the spring, but when I jumped into the lake last week (over and over again) I realized what a mistake I’d made, that here was a book that had changed my life. I’ve been jumping into lakes and pools ever since I read it instead of easing my way in gently (and sloooowly) as in previous summers, thinking, “If Jessica J. Lee can use a hammer to crack the ice and jump in a lake in December, I’m certainly capable of a cannonball in July.” Back in the lake beside which I first read it, I realized how much this memoir needs a space in my book collection. How much all those books I read last summer had gotten under my skin.

I wasn’t sure how the reading was going to pan out this year—we were going on vacation with three other families, and while this was a very good plan, I was concerned that being surrounded on all sides by people I like might get in the way of my reading prowess. But it turned out not to be the case because, a) it turned out no one was interested in surrounding me on all sides 24 hours a day b) everyone else was reading too and c) our friends had brought their children, who whisked mine away for so much freedom, fun and adventure that I scarcely saw them all week long and therefore got to read so much that I almost go bored of reading. (Almost. I did, however, get bored of potato chips, shockingly, but that was only very temporary and things are back to normal.)

Anyway, it turns out that I read nine books again, and it was exhilarating and amazing. Liane Moriarty again, who does not get nearly enough credit for being a literary genius—the nuance and craft in her work is astounding. More Laura Lippman too, because she is just such an astounding novelist. The latest Birder Murder Mystery, A Tiding of Magpies, which was the first anti-Brexit novel I’ve read since Ali Smith’s Autumn (and it made me thinking about whether a good pro-Brexit novel was a literary impossibility). I really liked it, and also Death in a Darkening Mist, by Iona Wishaw, the third book I’ve read in the Lane Winslow mystery series which has really been a highlight of my summer. The new Caitlin Moran, which was so terrific, laugh-out-loud funny, powerful and profound. So glad to read Celeste Ng’s first novel after loving her latest a few months back. I was happy standing in line at Webers, because I had Tish Cohen’s Little Green in my bag, which was a certainly a novel that had me in its thrall. And Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother still has me thinking about all the spaces in between its story and I think I’m haunted by the ending—such a subtly provocative book.

I wonder which of these will still be haunting me a year from now?

July 2, 2018

Florida, by Lauren Groff

It continues to be one of my favourite serendipitous things, reading a short story to realize I’d read it before, long ago, in an entirely different context. I wrote about this when I finally read Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories in 2012 and realized I’d read “Celia Behind Me” two decades before in my Grade 12 English textbook: “And I realized that I’d read this story before, more than once. It was so strangely familiar, like something I’d known in a dream, but somebody else’s dream.” I remember it also happening when I read Lauren Groff’s “L. DeBard and Aliette” in her first story collection Delicate Edible Birds in 2009, and I realized I’d read the story in The Atlantic in 2006, that it was the first thing by Lauren Groff I’d ever read—before The Monsters of Templeton, even. Before I even realized there was such a thing as Lauren Groff, who has since gone on to become my very favourite writer.

I love “rediscovering” these stories for so many reasons, for the way it suggests the architecture of my mind is infinite dusty corridors and who knows what lies around the next corner, and also for how it underlines that nothing ever goes away. That those dusty corridors are lines with rooms that are full of stuff, everything I’ve seen or heard or thought or read, and how it’s still there, all of it, even if not immediately accessible.

Midway through Florida—which is a book I’d picked up with more expectations than previous works by Groff, but also with the expectation that I was to suspend all expectations because she never does the same thing twice—I came upon her story “Above and Below.” And partway through that story I realized I’d read this one before as well, in The New Yorker in 2011.  And I remember not liking it. This was before Arcadia, before I properly understood the breadth of Lauren Groff’s literary ambition, of her range. This was before the world fell apart as well, after the global economy melted down in 2008 but in that quiet period where it seemed like it all might be okay, and those of us who didn’t live in places like Florida might have been fooled into thinking that progress was an ongoing story. I remember that I just didn’t see the point.

In the context of 2018 though, of this book itself, the story reads very differently to me. I also found it interesting to think about the story in the context of Arcadia, which was about a community that comes together and then falls apart, as the society depicted in “Above and Below” also seems to be unravelling, or at least it is for the protagonist—I see how it fits into her oeuvre in a way I wasn’t able to appreciate at the time. And it certainly does fit into this collection, which is of stories in which dread is creeping, danger lurks, children are stranded alone on islands, and the possibility that a sinkhole might open at any time beneath you is not especially remote.

Florida is a locality of extremes—I am frequently grateful for living smack-dab in the middle of the continent, as immune as one could possibly be from hurricanes, earthquakes, or alligators. When I hear stories like that of a sinkhole that swallowed an entire house, I think to myself, “Well, that’s a Florida story,” and go on with my day. Although if I’ve learned anything in the last few years, it’s that what’s going on at the edges, in the margins, has deeper ramifications than I ever really realized. That a story like “Above and Below,” about a character who loses everything and just keeps going—it seems less marginal now than it did in 2011.

I like Florida for how it’s a book as well as a collection of stories. I like stories, but when I pick up a book, a book is what I want, for there to be themes and connections that tie it all together. Not that the stories be linked, necessarily, but that they inform each other. Context matters. I want a story collection to be a book that’s capable of being grasped and understood as a whole. Which is the whole reason I’d be shaking this one emphatically and imploring you to read it: Florida! It’s so good. It will break your heart about this miserable perilous world, but you’ll also love that world a little bit more because this incredible book is in it.

June 26, 2018

Homes: A Refugee Story, by Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah

When I think back to Fall 2015, I can’t help but cringe. It was an awful time, absolutely shameful, when a deranged man with a gun attacked the Canadian parliament during the most awful Canadian election I can remember, when Ministers were announcing “barbaric practices hotline” and simply throwing up their hands when the body of a child washed up on a Turkish beach, one of so many migrants who’ve been drowned. People kept hearkening back to the response of Canadians to the Vietnamese refugee crisis, and wondering if some fundamental morality was missing from us now, or perhaps we’d all been overtaken by inertia. It was the worst of times—it just was. And then something shifted.

With the election of a Liberal Government that October, Canada’s hard policies toward refugees was eased, and families started arriving. Suddenly everyone I knew was sponsoring a Syrian family, or tutoring them in English, and families joined our school community, became my children’s classmates. It’s been an incredible story, albeit not a straightforward one, but what human stories ever are? Did you read the one about the chocolate company founded by a Syrian refugee and their Pride-themed chocolate bars? Remember when Chris Alexander blamed the Syrian refugee crisis on the CBC? Oh my goodness, I do not miss that guy one single bit.

I will note that Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah and his family arrived in Canada in late 2014, one of the lucky few that were permitted when Canada was being pretty stingy with welcomes. And that his is just a single story standing for many, but still, it’s a remarkable thing to hear a refugee story from a Syrian point of view. Homes: A Refugee Story, as told to Winnie Yeung, who was Bakr’s teacher at his Edmonton high school. He wanted to share his story, he told her, to honour his experiences, so much loss, the friends and family he’d said goodbye to when he left his home. And so together they created this book, which is categorized as a work of creative-nonfiction, Yeung writing in Bakr’s voice, with information gleaned from interviews with his family.

Together, they tell the story of Bakr’s early childhood, born in Iraq: “It wasn’t always like this. My life wasn’t always like a scene from Call of Duty or Counter Strike.” He remembers delicious food, being surrounded by family. But eventually it becomes very difficult to be a Sunni Muslim in Baserah, where they lived, and after a cousin’s body is found in a dumpster, the family decides to leave. In 2010, they received visas to relocate to Homs in Syria where they already had family, and a twenty-four hour bus ride leads them to their new home.

Soon after arriving, the family apples for refugee status—Bakr’s father suspects that Syria will not be any safer than Iraq, and his suspicions prove prescient with the arrival of the Arab Spring in 2011, which would come to throw Syria into its bloody civil war. The first sign is an attack on the mosque where Bakr and his family are praying, and this first time the response is disbelief—could they be being shot at? But eventually they’d become numb to the violence, accustomed to the sound of gunfire and explosions—though never to the terror of being approached by government thugs in the street. But even still, life goes on. Bakr’s father tells him: “Death doesn’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. Even life doesn’t matter, son. What matters is living your life with your family, with the people you love. We love each other, hard, and hold on tight. What we face, we face together. Together we can move forward and every little happiness we can have, we enjoy. We cannot let hatred and fear stop us from living.”

This is a story about an ordinary childhood against an extraordinary backdrop—eventually the schools close, the field where Bakr and his friends play soccer is overtaken by snipers, Bakr witnesses his first massacre, and then another one—what kind of a childhood is that? But then the family wins the lottery (literally) and receives permission to travel and make a new home in Canada. It’s such a long way from there to here, but Bakr (and Yeung) are so generous in sharing the journey.

  • This book nicely complements Ausma Zehanat Khan’s A Dangerous Crossing, a gripping novel about the plight and trauma of Syrian refugees that similarly brings the story of this brutal war to life.

 

June 19, 2018

Ayesha At Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin

True confession: I’m not a huge fan of Jane Austen and think Colin Firth is kind of drippy, so while the Pride and Prejudice connections to Uzma Jalaluddin’s debut novel Ayesha at Last might get some readers going, it was never going to be me. But thankfully Jalaluddin doesn’t stop at Austen while giving her novel its literary underpinnings—her main character Ayesha’s grandfather is an English professor who peppers his speech with allusions to Shakespeare and he’s the one who points out the similar framework between Ayesha’s own story and many of Shakespeare’s plays—”Shakespeare enjoyed a good farce. Separated twins, love triangles and mistaken identity were his specialty. Yet it is through his tragedies that one learns the price of silence.” He implores his granddaughter, “Promise you will always choose laughter over tears. Promise you will choose to live in a comedy instead of a tragedy.” But any life, of course, will always be a bit of both.

In Ayesha at Last, the shenanigans begin when Khalid, a very conservative Muslim, takes an interest in the woman who lives across the street in his new neighbourhood, which sounds like no big thing, except Khalid is devoutly uninterested in women in general because he’s waiting for his mother to arrange his marriage. He also refuses to shake his new boss’s hand, because touching women goes against his beliefs, which causes his boss to turn against him with brutal results. And then later at a meeting at his mosque to help organize a youth conference, he finds himself face-to-face with the woman he’s been watching…except he thinks she’s her cousin, and attraction sparks between them before some inevitable mishaps ensue.

And the woman, of course, is Ayesha herself, who’s starting a new career as a teacher to pay back a debt to her uncle, although she’d rather be writing poetry or doing anything but standing in front of a classroom of high school students. She gets roped into organizing the youth conference because of her flighty cousin Hafza who is currently entertaining several potential husbands (mostly because she’s longing to kickstart her career as an event planner, and feels her own wedding would be the best place to start). Her best friend is Clara, who works with Khalid (in HR, which doesn’t make it easy when Khalid’s boss goes on her vindictive rampage). And Ayesha has absolutely no interest in Khalid, with his robes and untrimmed beard and archaic ideas of what it means to be a proper woman or a proper Muslim. But when the two of them are together, something happens and the force is unstoppable.

There are a couple of instances of awkward maneuvering at the beginning of the story to get all the players in their proper places, but once the story starts, Ayesha At Last becomes very difficult to put down. Neither Ayesha nor Khalid is a perfect human, and at first they tend to bring out each other’s worst tendencies, and then there’s the matter of Khalid not knowing Ayesha’s actual identity, and when he gets to engaged to the actual Hafsa (thinking she is Ayesha) it all begins to go wrong. The story is further complicated with the involvement of Khalid’s sister, who was sent away to India years before under dubious circumstances and Khalid is too afraid of his mother to ask the right questions about what happened to her, and also Ayesha’s own mother who is bitter about marriage after her husband’s mysterious death, so Ayesha doesn’t have the answers in her own family history either. And what is the role of love then, and is it a blessing or a curse, and does it have a role at all in communities that adhere to traditional values?

Ayesha at Last is completely a delight, more farce than tragedy, but with depth and poignancy and a willingness to grapple with big questions. It’s a smart and assured debut that is deliciously devourable and deserves space on everyone’s reading list this summer.

June 13, 2018

An Ocean of Minutes, by Thea Lim

So the book whose spell I’m currently under is Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes, which is just another one of your usual time travel/flu pandemic/post-apocalyptic fare. (Ambitious, yes?) It’s 1981, and Polly and her boyfriend Frank are stuck in Texas where he comes down with the illness that will kill him unless they can secure life-saving treatment. And the only way to pay for this treatment is possible is for Polly to sign a contract to travel into the future and becoming a bonded worker for TimeRaiser, the company that invented time travel and which is now bringing workers from pre-pandemic America into the future to help rebuild the nation. So Frank and Polly agree to meet again in 1993 and she departs from 1981 at the Houston International Airport: “The only thing remaining of familiar airport protocol is the logistical thoughtlessness of the curb: once you reach it, the line of unfeeling motorists waiting behind you means only seconds to say goodbye.” Twelve years. “It’s a quarter of a blink of an eye in the life of the universe.”

But the process is not straightforward (and there have been rumours about TimeRaiser; plus Polly is one of the few skilled workers—an upholsterer—on the journey, and most of her fellow travellers are women Polly thinks might be Mexican, women who don’t speak English, who are even more desperate than she is) and Polly arrives not in 1993, but in 1998, and in a reality nothing like she’d expected. The pandemic has destroyed infrastructure and industry, societal order has collapsed, and the only hope for Texas is health-tourism for the affluent, and Polly will be employed refurbishing furniture for the new resorts because there are no means to manufacture new things. She’d last seen Frank in 1981, just days ago, and then weeks, then months—but it’s been seventeen years for him in a world that’s become a nightmare. Will he even be waiting for her? And if he is, how will she even find him?

There is nothing straightforward about the passage of time, which is why stories about defying chronology through time travel continue to fascinate, and why a telling a story outside of chronology can add such richness to a text (i.e. how Lim’s novel moves back and forth between Polly and Frank’s life in Buffalo from 1978-1981, and to Polly’s journey alone in 1998 Galveston). What it means too that the future Polly travels to in An Ocean of Minutes is set twenty years in our past—historical speculative fiction? And the metaphor that the seventeen years Frank has to wait is but moments for Polly—but isn’t time like that? And isn’t love? How long does one wait? How far does love go?

The people Polly encounters in 1998 are ruthless and awful, which is probably why they’ve survived, but at what price? There is no beauty in this craven new world, in which workers are slaves to the TimeRaiser corporation. Polly enjoys brief moments of connection with the people she encounters, but many of them end up betraying her—mostly to save themselves, or boost themselves, at least. She ends up losing her privileged job and accommodations, and going to live among the women she’d come across at the beginning of her journey, working to cut tiles for swimming pools. And although everyone she encounters has stories of people they were to expecting but failed to be reunited with, Polly refuses to give up on Frank, and it seems like she’s keeping the faith for everyone.

There’s so much going on this book, including passages of wondrous prose and attempts to answer the question of where love goes when it’s over. What are we do with memories? And what about mementos? Early in their relationship, Polly wonders by Frank’s tendency to keep things, souvenirs of their love—does he think their love will end, she wonders? Does he hold on things because of a lack of faith? And yet even Polly longs to preserve their perfect moments, just to hold them. And yet the hours, the minutes, the seconds—they just go and go and go. So is it remotely reasonable to expect love to be a thing that stays the same?

I had to know what happened, so I kept reading, reading, gripped. But (unusual for me) I didn’t flip to the end, just to check. I didn’t want spoilers. I wanted to find out what would happen, but all in good time, and I had faith in Lim’s storytelling—so I held on, and was so impressed by the extent of the allegory, about race and gender, migration, capitalism, environmental and the perilous balance of so much that we take for granted.

I loved this book, and how it turns another time into another country, but doesn’t it always seem that way? So far away, and yesterday, and it’s as though you could almost get back there, and you nearly know the way.

June 6, 2018

Summer Books on the Radio

A bumper crop of  summer book recommendations! I’ve read half these books, and the other half are coming up on my nightstand. But I’m excited to recommend them all to you. You can listen again to my CBC Ontario Morning books column on their podcast. I come in at 32.00. And learn more about all these titles over at 49thShelf.com.

June 4, 2018

The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer

“And didn’t it always go like that–body parts not quite lining up the way you wanted them to, all of it a little bit off, as if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn’t stop watching, because, despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.” –Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

I’m still not resolved on what to make of Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel, The Female Persuasion, and how to write about it here, and so I’ve decided to just go for it and see if I can work it out by doing—and all the better if I manage to get it done before I have to go fetch my children in 45 minutes. I loved this novel, but I don’t know how to grasp it. It doesn’t have handles. Its narrative isn’t a line, and it’s stories packed inside of stories, and also a series of waves that keep coming to wash up on shore. Most writers create a narrative, but Wolitzer creates a universe, dense and rich, and its difficult to parse out the story. By which I mean that it’s difficult to parse out just one.

Last week we received a message from our children’s school of a sexual assault of two children in our neighbourhood, and I’m thinking of starting a campaign for better street lighting, not for safety per se, but instead because we’re running out of room on the lampposts we currently have for posters of all the men wanted for assaulting women on our streets. All this is happening in light (or lack thereof) of the misogynistic van attack a few weeks back, and the weight of this is heavy, and when I read the email I literally fell down weeping. I’m so tired of this, of the backlash and misogyny, that it’s considered “political” for a person to profess to caring about gender equality, when there’s an active movement to restrict women’s reproductive choices, and that there continue to be people who don’t think we need feminism.

“‘It’s like we keep trying to use the same rules,” Greer said, “and these people keep saying to us, ‘Don’t you get it? I will not live by your rules.'” She took a breath. “They always get to set the terms. I mean, they just come in and set them. They don’t ask, they just do it. It’s still true. I don’t want to keep repeating this forever. I don’t want to keep having to live in the buildings they make. And in the circles they draw. I know I’m being overly descriptive, but you get the point.”‘ —The Female Persuasion, p. 447.

“‘I assumed there would always be a little progress and then a little slipping, you know? And then a little more progress. But instead the whole idea of progress was taken away, and who knew that could happen, right?” said this vociferous woman.’ —The Female Persuasion, p. 438

“Because our history is constantly overwritten and blanked out…., we are always reinventing the wheel when we fight for equality.” —Michele Landsberg, Writing the Revolution

I mean, on one hand this is a book about what happened when second-wave feminism marched into the twenty-first century, about what happens when feminism meets capitalism, it’s about sexual assault, and friendship, and betrayal, and the possible inevitability of the betrayal. “Possible,” because I’m not sure exactly. This novel is not a polemic, a treatise, but more of an interrogation…of everything. It’s also about coming of age, and getting old, and having ideals, and then losing them. It’s about compromise, about the necessity and danger of. It’s about making friends with one’s worst tendencies. Small towns and big cities. It’s telescopic, and kaleidoscopic too, the story of just a few years in the life of Greer Kadetsky who is transformed by an encounter with famous feminist Faith Frank at her middling college one night in the early twenty-first century. Greer ends up working for Faith’s feminist foundation, and choices she makes in her professional life complicates her relationship with her best friend and her boyfriend. And the narrative takes in both these characters too, as well as Faith Frank, pitching us forward and backward through decades, these same stories that keep happening over and over again.

The Female Persuasion does not have the answers, and reminded me of one of my favourite books about feminism, Unless, by Carol Shields, which similarly interrogates one’s certainties and dares to suggest its protagonist might be wrong. Though not entirely, or perhaps it’s more that right and wrong don’t quite matter, that the world and life itself is too textured for anything as straightforward as binaries. Or for anything like a single narrative thread, either, but instead there is noise, cacophony, as brilliant and loud as the cover of this splendid novel.

May 28, 2018

Sharp, by Michelle Dean

I put Michelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion on hold at the library as soon it was available, and then a bought the first copy I saw for sale at a bookstore because I just couldn’t wait. The next day a review copy arrived from the publisher, and then three days after that I got the call that my library hold was in, and by this point my children were saying, “Not that book again!” But if ever a title should be ubiquitous, this would be the one. I’ve never read a book quite like Sharp in all my life, and I’m pretty sure you haven’t either.

So here it is: this is not a book about women who were outliers, a sideshow project. Yes, the women profiled in Sharp were exceptions to the rule, which is still true and mainly that people aren’t all that interested in what women have to say. But it’s that history tends to be chronicled through the experiences of men that gives us the idea of these women being on the margins, not the history itself. As Dean writes in her preface: “Men might have outnumbered women, demographically. But in the arguably more crucial matter of producing work worth remembering, the work that defined the terms of their scene, the women were right up to par—and often beyond it.” So that you can you write a history of twentieth-century criticism, and just skip the men altogether, and still end up with a rich and engaging 300 pages comprising fullness.

Though no doubt most of these woman would bristle at being placed in such a group, as these were usually women who resisted groups altogether. Many of them hated each other, though there were some surprising friendships as well (Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt!). None of them were “speaking for women,” either, but instead were human people who expressed ideas about things, and sometimes they were wrong, which for women especially is a perilous endeavour. Most of them challenged notions of feminism and sisterhood as well, but then what else would be expect critics to do?

I will be honest: I’ve been ambivalent about the value of criticism for the past few years, and Sharp doesn’t totally assuage that. Social media has done a good job of putting me off opinions altogether, and has me second-guessing whether mine are really worth sharing. “Who cares?” is also a question worth asking, and always has been—and even with these famous critics, the answer is usually “most people don’t.” A lack of outcry about the disappearance of platforms for reviews from anyone except the reviewers only underlines this. Nora Ephron, Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, for example, are best known today not for their criticism. It also strikes me as a very male thing, definitiveness and ranking, like those guys on twitter demanding you show them your source. Why would a woman even bother? (At a certain point in their careers, many of these women no longer did.)

But a good reason to bother is for the richness that women’s voices, in all their diversity, add to the critical culture, I suppose. Dean is forthright about this in her preface when she writes that understanding what made these women who they were is most important because of how much we need more people like them.

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.

May 3, 2018

At This Juncture: A Book of Letters, by Rona Altrows

“Dear Joan [of Arc],

It is impossible to know if this letter will get to you. Personally I am agnostic and have no idea whether there is any substance to the Christian praise of life after death for the deserving. Moreover, if there is a heaven, can it be reached by Canada Post? Another unknowable…” 

The premise is this: Ariadne Jensen, a Canadian woman in her fifties, writes to the CEO of Canada Post with a modest proposal to inspire Canadians to start sending letters again (thereby increasing Canada Post’s profits). Letter-writing, for Jensen, has been a lifelong pursuit (she wrote letters to her Aunt Bella in Moosomin, Saskatchewan, from the age of six, and “[t]herefore, in the course of the years we were in postal contact, we purchased, by my calculation, at least 2,392 Canadian stamps”). Unfortunately, it would be difficult for even the most prolific letter-writer to save Canada Post single-handedly, and so she wonders instead if they could come up with a scheme whereby anyone who buys a pack of stamps also receives one of Jensen’s letters, one of her actual letters, or a letter she’s written to a historical figure (see Joan of Arc, above, or another to Lady Gaga) or even fictional letters she’s created between historical figures—from General James Wolfe to his mother, from Helen Keller to her lover, etc. etc. And in reading these letters, Canadians would be inspired to go out and write more letters of their own, buy more stamps, and so it goes. And Canada Post continues on into the future, a venerable institution.

There is no response from the Canada Post, and so Jensen rescinds her offer to write demographically targeted letters in exchange for a small office space, but her project continues and takes the form of Rona Altrows’ new book, At This Juncture: A Book of Letters. Comprising all the different kinds of letters outlined above, which means this book is basically a collection of stories, some of which are linked, and as the book progresses the reader gets a stronger sense of who Ariadne Jensen is and also of the characters who populate her world.

I do have a vague suspicion: I have a suspicion that Rona Altrows herself (an award-winning writer who has published two previous books of short fiction) has a hobby similar to that of Ariadne Jensen, writing gorgeous letters between fictional figures and then she amassed a nice pile of them and then faced the challenge of turning them into a book; i.e. the conceit of Jensen and the effort to save Canada Post was secondary to the book’s actual content, and it’s true while the former is charming, the latter is richer. It’s true too that this is a book that’s targeted toward a very specific audience, but I am that audience and I loved this book.

I love letters. I still don’t write as many as I should, but I try to make up for it with thank-you notes and Christmas cards. I love reading collections of letters (Blanche Howard’s and Carol Shields’ is my favourite), and also epistolary novels, I love writing about things that arrive in the post, and like Ariadne Jensen, I too have lamented the postal system’s decline. And so At This Juncture was right up my street. The prose is beautiful, each letter compelling, and I was curious about the organization of the book, its structure, the poetic fragments that introduced each section. I loved pondering the connections between the letters, wondering what each one’s point of origin might have been, and also enjoyed the glimpses into so many different worlds, different lives. Ariadne Jensen is a memorable character—she reminded me of Lillian Boxfish. And she has partially succeeded in her endeavour, it seems, because upon finishing At This Juncture, what else could I do but go buy a pack of stamps? (With bees!)

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Mitzi Bytes

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