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November 19, 2015

My review of Split, by Libby Crewman

splitMy first professional book review was of Libby Crewman’s The Darren Effect in Canadian Notes & Queries in 2008. It was a good book, but a messy one, and I suspect my review probably achieved a similar effect, which sadly was not an aesthetic statement, but was just me figuring out my way. But it also meant that I was looking forward to Crewman’s follow-up, Split, which was published by Goose Lane Editions in September. I read the novel twice as summer turned into fall, and it’s a story that has stayed with me since, in its oddness and perplexities, its curious sideways appeal, but also in the vivid moments that Creelman so stunningly evokes.

A remarkable feature of Split, Libby Creelman’s second novel (after 2008’s The Darren Effect; she is also author of the acclaimed 2000 story collection, Walking in Paradise) is that it isn’t split. Whereas Creelman’s previous book was an impressive tangle of multiple storylines suggesting this short story writer was still finding her way into a different literary milieu, Split—for the most part taut, controlled and smartly plotted—signals Creelman’s arrival proper as a novelist. This new book is an ambitious, assured and most accomplished whole.


This wholeness is doubly (ha!) impressive considering the novel’s movement between two moments in time—2008 on the eve of both Barack Obama’s first election victory and widespread economic meltdown, and during the hot summer of 1975, the year after Nixon’s resignation and just months after the last American troops were removed from Vietnam. The former is the novel’s present day, during which Pilgrim Wheeler returns to her hometown in rural Massachusetts to find her childhood world drastically changed, and must finally reconcile with a tragedy that had wrenched her family apart decades before.

Read the rest of my review at The Rusty Toque!

November 15, 2015

Heyday, by Marnie Woodrow

heyday“It had something to do with Mary Pickford. With beauty. With the Figure 8 ride on a hot June day at just the right moment in time.”

Heyday is the first novel by Marnie Woodrow since the acclaimed Spelling Mississippi more than a decade ago. It’s a book that artfully weaves two stories, one in the present day as Joss mourns the loss of her longtime partner, Bianca, to whom she was never fully committed, and the other about two young women, Bette and Freddy, who meet one day on a roller coaster in 1909. And what connects these stories both is the Toronto Islands, peaceful Ward’s Island where Joss lives alone now but in her grief feels smothered by the attentions of the close-knit island community, and Hanlan’s Point on the other side, which in 1909 was a bustling amusement park, called “Canada’s Coney Island,” and where Freddy and Bette encounter each other for the very first time.

Bette is a single-rider, unnerved by the boy who takes the seat beside her as the roller coaster ride begins, and then intrigued as he whips off his hat to reveal a shock of blonde hair—the boy’s a girl after all. And a friendship begins between them, cultivated over a mutual love of swoops and turns, twists and plummets. Although the girls are worlds apart otherwise. Bette is the daughter of upper-class parents, her father an ardent spiritualist, her mother busy with campaigning for woman’s suffrage, and both parents too involved in their own affairs to pay sufficient attention to their youngest daughter who is mourning the recent loss of her beloved grandmother. Their lack of attention means that she’s able to escape from the confines of home during that summer, however, and make her way across the harbour to Hanlans, where she spends her time becoming utterly bewitched by the charismatic Freddy who works as a ticket-taker in the movie theatre. Although Freddy has secrets of her own, running from a dangerous past that is never far behind her. And as affection between the two girls grows—as they make plans for a future together, daring to consider running away together to New York City, to the actual Coney Island—it becomes clear to Freddy that their relationship might be putting Bette’s life in peril. But does she dare risk it? Or must she sacrifice their friendship to ensure her friend does not become snarled up in her own torrid past?

The novel’s historical detail is evocatively realized, and uncompromising in its sense of immediacy and richness of atmosphere. The sections of Heyday (from the respective perspectives of Bette, Freddy, and Joss) flow together naturally, the past and present timeline subtly connecting with small details. Though how the two sections relate beyond geography is not clear until the novel’s end when it becomes clear that one story might just be a figment of the other. But the spell Woodrow casts is so magnificently done that it doesn’t occur to the reader even to mind this.

November 8, 2015

Us, by David Nicholls

us“It’s like a Richard Curtis film,” will be the kind of description that sends half of you running, but (surprise, surprise) I’m in the other camp, and so I was all up for reading David Nicholls’ novel, Us. It’s the story of Douglas, a rather buttoned-up fellow whose wife Connie confesses late one night that after twenty-five years of marriage, perhaps she’s ready to leave him. Although it’s a tentative thing, her declaration, and they’ve already scheduled a summer trip across Europe with their teenage son that she’s determined to go through with. Leaving Douglas, who’s never too sure of himself in the first place, on particularly unsteady ground, and what ensues is continental hijinx and mayhem, bittersweetness and a bit of heartwarming.

The story weaves together the story of their trip with that of their relationship, starting with their first meeting at a dinner party, an unlikely connection between them. Connie is warm, passionate, artistic, while Douglas is an awkward biochemist, but each awakens something in the other, and Douglas finds himself in love for the first time in his life, moreover bowled over that Connie loves him too—he makes her laugh, he calms her storms, and their worlds are so different that each is fascinated with the other. Their relationship progresses, they move in together, buy a flat, and get married, which is straightforward enough, but life itself never is. There are bumps in the road, and there are tragedies, in particular the death of their daughter soon after her birth, an experience that tears them away from themselves, each other, and the entire world, before they’re able to reassemble to the pieces of the universe into something recognizable again, and even though they do, it’s something from which neither of them ever fully recover—Douglas in particular, who we know from his own evasions in the narrative lacks the emotional vocabulary to fully process what has happened to them. Though the experience also cements them like nothing else—no one else knew their baby, or loved her, and they resolve together to never forget her. Even the birth of their son not long after, while something like a balm, doesn’t take the pain away.

As their son grows, though, there becomes a new kind of pain. Life changes and Douglas leaves the job he loves in academia to better provide for his family, working long hours and commutating to a pharmaceutical company. And he begins to find himself displaced within their family home, that his wife and son are connected in a way that excludes him, and that his attempts to be the kind of father he wants to be—and even more, for his son to be the kid of boy he wants him to be—all fizzle, setting off a chain reaction of upset and disappointments. He loses his humour. His son has no respect for him, and doesn’t even like him, and no wonder. And then there is Connie, at four o’clock in the morning: “I think our marriage has run its course, Douglas, and I think I want to leave you.”

On their trip to Europe, Douglas becomes determined to prove to Connie that he is the man she fell in love and to their son that he is worthy of his love and respect. But things go very wrong before they’ve any chance of being right again. And it was some of these bits of the novel (which is 400 pages) at which my attention lagged. The addition of a sex-mad Australian accordion player to this cast was a good one, and the travel setting allowed Douglas to grate on his family’s nerves in a way that was particularly exacting. But it was the interactions between these characters that I loved best, and so Douglas wandering the streets of Amsterdam was always going to be less compelling, no matter who he meets on his wanderings.

Resolutions were also a bit pat as well, although I’d heard the Richard Curtis comparison, so what was I expecting. Curiously though, the novel is spattered with very literary epigrams: Penelope Fitzgerald, Lorrie Moore, Elizabeth Taylor (not that one), Henry James and Isaac Newton. Allusions as scattershot as Douglas’s attempts at harmony, or the travel itinerary that eventually transpired. Suggesting the novel comes with a certain literary heft, which is strange because its narrator isn’t at all the type. Surely this novel isn’t the type either. But then the references are also elsewhere woven into the text itself, and perhaps the project itself is to determine what kind of novel one can write about a man who doesn’t read novels.  The inner life of a man who conducts himself as though he has no inner life, the stereotypical Englishman—perhaps a generation late. The kind of man who peruses his son’s social media accounts, and wonders with terror (at least I think it’s with terror): “Good God…how might I have fared in a world where people were free to say what they felt?” How far would the novel have to stretch to accommodate a narrator like that?

While the novel should have been shorter, I can determine that I liked it very much, most particularly for the complexity of its characters. Connie is just as flawed as Douglas is, and while initially they complement each other, it’s easy to see how the years roughen their edges and have them rub up together all wrong. She thwarts him just as much as he thwarts himself, and it’s all so terribly human and wrong. The novel is notable too for its portrayal of marriage—it reminded me of a line from Lorrie Moore’s Bark, that marriage “was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle.” But how does one get there? The path is never so straightforward. And David Nicholls has done a remarkable job of showing us the way.

November 3, 2015

Rumi and the Red Handbag, by Shawna Lemay

rumi-and-the-red-hangbagI am not a handbag person per se, but as a fervent believer in the secret (and sacred) lives of things, I’ve been really looking forward to Shawna Lemay’s novel, Rumi and the Red Handbag. And also as a fan of Lemay’s blog, Calm Things, and something that I found really wonderful about the book was how clear it was for those of us in the know that Lemay’s blogging is a huge part of her process. This is a book about handbags (among other things) by someone whose long-time blog was called “Capacious Hold-All,” after all, which is from Virginia Woolf’s diary, her description of what she wanted her diary to be. And so it seems that handbags are literary objects right from the novel’s departure—how could a reader ever have doubted?

Rumi and the Red Handbag is a slim, heartbreaking and perfect read, rich with gorgeous prose, and depth and texture. Infused with allusions, explicit and otherwise, it’s a hushed and quiet celebration of women and their lives and their words and the secrets they carry. There is the Woolf, of course, and references to Clarice Lispector, who I’ve never read, but now I have to, and Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath. Plus vintage Harlequins—this is a book that permits great reverence to women’s stories and women’s spaces.

Our narrator is Shaya, on the run from academia and her unfinished thesis about the secrets of women writers. She takes a job at a consignment shop where she spends one long Edmonton winter in thrall to her young colleague, Ingrid-Simone, whose haphazard education consists of snippets and quotations and lines gleaned from library books that have a tendency to fall off the shelf right into her hands as she meanders her way through the stacks. She’s preoccupied by questions of the soul, by ideas in general. She floats around spouting lines in a manner that is one hand a bit simple and precious, but then she is young and it reminded me of the way my friends and I used to try to pin the down the world with bits and pieces once upon a time. I certainly remember that impulse, and Lemay captures it so well: “For Ingrid-Simone, the idea of hoarding thoughts, holding so many threads of ideas like cupped water as you knelt, knees grinding into finest gravel, thirsty by a mountain stream, did not terrify or oppress her instead exhilarated her.”

When things get a little too ethereal, Lemay balances it out by startling moments of revelation taking place under fluorescent lights at the Shoppers Drug Mart cosmetics counter, and also at Wal Mart. For while this is a novel concerned with questions of the soul, those questions are connected to the material world, in particular with the things that come and go from the shop where Shaya and Ingrid-Simone spend their days. Purses in particular are Ingrid-Simone’s things, and inspired by Shaya’s literary passions, she begins creating miniature purses inspired by writers and books: the first is a tiny capacious hold-all ala Virginia Woolf, authentic right down to a miniature pencil which inspires the writer’s walk in “Street Haunting.”

And so each woman inspires the other, and they learns from each other, and Ingrid-Simone reignites Shaya’s desire to start writing again, jotting words and ideas on post-it notes, “threads of ideas” (and there again we have connections to clothes and to textiles), like the way her friend thinks. Though all the pieces together still do not solve the inherent mystery of Ingrid-Simone—what secrets is she fleeing from? What is her connection to a curious red handbag? And there are other mysteries too—what about the goings-on of the shop’s proprietor, and also how can customers become so consumed by their own lives that they fail to acknowledge the humanity of service staff? A question that wears down on both Ingrid-Simone and Shaya as the long winter goes on.

With spring, however, comes revelations, and departures, and a journey that ends at the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam, a place Ingrid-Simone had long dreamed of making a pilgrimage to. A place that underlines her philosophy that there is a connection between a woman’s handbag and her soul. It’s a place for secrets, yes, and essential things, and for her stories. Especially for her stories.

For what is a handbag anyway but a place to keep a book?

October 28, 2015

Another Margaret, by Janice MacDonald

another-margaretI really loved this piece about campus novels and academic mysteries that Janice MacDonald wrote for 49thShelf back in September—referencing Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, of course. So I’ve been looking forward to her latest novel, Another Margaret, her sixth book in the Randy Craig series set in Edmonton, Alberta. Which is also the first book in the series, a reworked version of an out-of-print 1993 book called The Next Margaret, MacDonald’s first to feature Miranda Craig, a hapless perennial academic  with a penchant for sleuthing.

On the occasion of her 20th reunion—grad school at the University of Alberta, and her pal Denise has roped her into being part of the organizational committee—Randy’s mind drifts back to her MA studies and her fraught relationship with her thesis advisor. She’d gone back to school as a mature student to study up-and-coming but little known Canadian novelist Margaret Ahlers—yes, another Margaret, along with Laurence and Atwood—on whom her advisor, Dr. Hilary Quinn, had written critical works. But Dr. Quinn turns out to be oddly unforthcoming on the subject of Ahlers, and it is not long after announced that Ahlers herself has died. And whatever her connection to Dr. Quinn, it now seems complicated in a way that Randy is determined to get to the bottom of.

But the course of an academic detective story never did run smooth, and suddenly somebody else is dead—was it murder?—and Randy has got her fingers on a floppy disk that seems to contain a another novel by Ahlers. But the novel turns out to be a detective novel. A “brilliantly subversive detective novel,” but still: had Canada’s Great Literary Hope upped and gone genre? And if she was murdered, was that why?

“All that territory staked on the next Margaret Laurence, or Margaret Atwood, and she turns out to be the next Margaret Millar!”

MacDonald does a terrific job capturing the seasons of the academic year: the heightened expectations of autumn, and then come April, everybody is crying. The send-up of academia is fun and smart, and also important in what Randy’s work as a sessional instructor has to tell us about the precarious nature of academic work at the moment. I also enjoyed the novel’s glimpses into Canadian literary culture, including a funny bit when Randy starts a fake book blog to get an advanced copy of yet another new Ahlers novel that comes out right before the reunion—a novel that Randy knows could not have possibly been written by Ahlers herself.

CSXd0VEVAAEQFWoThe prose style was clunky in places, and some of the leaps of logic (both taken by Randy and required by her reader) were a bit absurd, and then once there’s the stabbing with the plastic picnic knife—well? Well, that’s how you know that the whole project is done in the spirit of fun, not taking itself too seriously, but executed well enough that admirers of academic mysteries can come along for the ride. And I really glad I did. Another Margaret was a lot of fun, and a great introduction to the Randy Craig series. I’ve been been feeling unwell this week and the weather has been autumnal in the not-so-golden sense, and so this has been the perfect kind of story to curl up in.

October 18, 2015

Night Moves, by Richard Van Camp

night-movesRichard Van Camp’s short story collection Night Moves is a book about transgressions. And for me even reading it was something of a transgression—I don’t read many male writers and Van Camp’s stories are so very male, stories with grit and violence, so much aggression. More than once I wondered if this book was really for me, but something compelled me to keep going. Part of it that these stories weren’t all so male after all, or at least that the question of gender isn’t a straightforward one—the first story, “bornagirl,” is about a trans woman violently assaulted by the young narrator who fears her difference as much as he’s drawn to it. Gender is fluid in many stories throughout the book. And so too are notions of natural and supernatural, the line sometimes blurred entirely to rich and evocative ends, otherworldly creatures living amidst the solidity of the physical world. And stories of otherworldliness living comfortably beside others altogether steeped in realism—”I Double Dogrib Dare You” about a man infatuated by a woman he calls The Holy Woman, a woman said to be half-spirit; followed by “Blood Rides the Wind” about a young man who rides into town intent on revenge for his cousin’s sexual abuse at the hands of a school principal, but who finds his plans challenged by a different kind of blood tie and a promise for the future. “Because of What I Did” is another story of revenge, against a man who’s part of a network behind the disappearance of women across the country—an allusion to the more than a thousand Indigenous women who’ve been murdered or gone missing in Canada in recent decades, to little or no notice until recently. And the very sexy but miraculously restrained “If Only Tonight,” speaking of transgressions, is about a married couple and an old friend, true confessions, no inhibitions and boundaries falling away altogether…as a David Gray winds down on the stereo (of course!).

Van Camp is a prolific writer and storyteller, a Dogrib (Tlicho) Dene from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. We know him best in our house from his children’s books (Little You; What’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses?), and it’s another transgression, I suppose, that his work so readily moves between audiences and genres. The stories in Night Moves extend the narratives of characters from his previous works, including the novel The Lesser Blessed and his most recent collection, Godless But Loyal to Heaven. (This review by Lauren Scott does a great job of putting Night Moves in the wider context of Van Camp’s work.)

I’m inclined to criticize a certain roughness I encountered editorially—typos and a few mistakes—in my copy of the book (which I think was an ARC). Although there is something about such roughness in keeping with the entire project—this is a book far more about its edges than its polish. It’s a rough book. And yet the “something compelling” I found about it all along, I think, is the way that it’s all the same infused with the power of hopefulness. Like its characters at pivotal moments, standing at the crossroads, the reader is driven to turn a corner, turn the page.*

(*Which is another Bob Seger reference I made totally by accident…)

October 14, 2015

Basic Black With Pearls, by Helen Weinzweig, and Nightwatching, by Méira Cook

basic-black-with-pearlsHelen Weinsweig’s “lost feminist classic” Basic Black With Pearls was winner of the Toronto Book Award in 1981, and has been reissued as part of House of Anansi Press’s A List series on the occasion of Weinzweig’s centenary. It’s part of the city’s canon of books about unhinged women and sub-urban ennui, along with Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians and Atwood’s The Edible Woman, although Weinsweig’s novel is far stranger. Its protagonist, Shirley Kaszenbowski, apparently travels the world on false passports, moving from city to city upon the signal of her dubious lover, the mysterious Coenraad, who communicates to her via her codes inside back-issues of National Geographic.  This arrangement is disturbed when she finds herself called back to Toronto, the city she grew up in and has fled from. So that when she arrives and begins to navigate the streets in search of her lover (who can take on many forms), the world around her becomes textured with story and significance, more than enough to trip on. Wearing the black dress and pearls that, she believes, permit her an aura of respectability, Shirley partakes in the city before her and also the city of her memory, a city that has vanished. The line between reality and Shirley’s delusions is just as blurry—the point of view reminded me of Our Woman from Anakana Schofield’s Malarky—making for a discombobulating but compelling reading experience.


nightwatchingMéira Cook has followed up her award-winning first novel, The House on Sugarbush Road (which was one of my favourite books of 2013) with Nightwatching, also set in South Africa, but this time in the Orange Free State during the 1970s. Though place and time play a more subtle force in this story, which zooms in so close on its characters almost so as to render the backdrop irrelevant. Taking place during one hot summer during which the days seem to stretch forever, and their hours too, the narrative conveys time’s slowness and its intensity, the whole world in slow motion. Motherless Ruthie Blackburn is on the cusp of puberty, her body erupting like a series of volcanoes, and so too her emotions, and yet still she cannot attract the attention of her distant father. So she takes out her rage on Miriam, the Blackburn’s maid and Ruthie’s caregiver, all the while Miriam is consumed by other concerns—her son the political radical, her wayward daughter, the babies that the other maids bring for her to hold on Saturdays before they grow too big and are sent away from their mothers to be raised by extended family. It’s an awkward and tragic status-quo, so that Ruthie has far too much freedom to roam streets, particularly at night, peering into houses and imagining the worlds inside.

Curiously for a novel, Nightwatching has a short story’s pacing, immediacy and vivid focus. The plot approaches its tragic end with a sense of inevitability, and in the end it’s not the plot that’s stirring as much as the prose, which creates the novel’s atmosphere and casts a spell that lingers. With the rhythms of its long complicated sentences: “But it was no use, she’d lost the knack, and the sound of the other woman’s name, for once, rang hollow, did not reassure, was not a talisman or a comfort or a cure.” Or, “…and he made his mind a blank, still as a lake with no thoughts to skip across its surface…” And, “Sip shook his head hard as he’d trained himself to do and the past broke up into tiny pieces, the bright colourful mosaics of incredulity and dispassion.”

October 4, 2015

Ledger of the Open Hand, by Leslie Vrydenhoek


“Great civilizations aren’t remembered for their tax policies.” —Marsha Lederman, The Globe and Mail.

I thought of Ledger of the Open Hand, by Leslie Vryenhoek, when I read the quote above, from a story about the failure of politicians in our federal election to grapple with issues deeper than budgets and surpluses, to talk about anything except money. Because Vryenhoek’s novel is about a character just like these uninspired (and uninspiring) politicians, Meriel-Claire Elgin who sees the world in terms of debits and credits, who conflates value with values, and the novel is also about how limited is such a worldview.

Though it’s an easy trap to fall into, this obsession with fiscal responsibility and thinking of thrift as a moral virtue. Raised in a small prairie town by parents of modest means, Meriel-Claire is determined to prove herself responsible as she begins university in the city, working in the summers and part-time to supplement her parents financial support. Though she quickly sees her experience in contrast with that of her sophisticated roommate, Daneen, who takes her family’s wealth for granted. Their respective financial situations seem to demarcate their places in the world, Meriel-Claire decides, imagining herself as the hard-working ant while her grasshopper friend devotes herself to shallow and frivolous concerns. Unconsciously seeing the fable analogy to its end, Meriel-Claire envisions a day when there will be justice, when her hard-work and prudence will be rewarded and Daneen will meet her inevitable downfall.

But of course, life is not this simple, structured like a ledger sheet (which, cleverly, is suggested in the novel’s cover image), and neither is the novel. Interestingly, the story of the ant and the grasshopper has alternate versions in which it’s the grasshopper who is actually the virtuous one, and The Ledger of the Open Hand (like life itself) permits plenty of space for such ambiguity. The novel is broad in its scope, taking place over three decades, and showing the changes in the life of Meriel-Claire (and in her family’s) as she moves from her twenties to her forties. And because all of this is presented from Meriel-Claire’s point of view, everything is about money—she starts off as a bookkeeper and eventually becomes a debt counsellor; with colleagues and family, she gains a fierce (and justified) reputation as a tightwad. Though Meriel-Claire doesn’t see it quite that way herself, and Vryenhoek gives us real sympathy for her situation and how she got there, and the truth is that so much about being in the world is about money after all. It’s just simpler for people like Daneen who don’t have to worry about it. Of course it’s easy not to think about money all the time when you have no need to.

Written in short chapters that whisk the reader through the years, we follow Meriel-Claire through her first jobs, home-ownership, through failed investments and unexpected windfalls. We see her parents sell their business and begin to enjoy their retirement, and live a life that seems at odds with Meriel-Claire’s memories of her modest upbringing. Their distance from their daughter is augmented by tragedy in their lives, tragedy that none of them is really ever able to account for. And looking on through all of this is Daneen, who grows close to the family and eventually becomes a successful author whose stories seem a bit too familiar to Meriel-Claire, raising issues of just how much borrowing is permitted in matters of story as well as money, and also of how adept is anybody at seeing a reflection of her own self?

While all too present on the political stump, issues of finance are curiously absent from so much of literature, whose bills seems to get paid almost by magic (unless it’s a book about the farm and foreclosure). Vryenhoek manages to weave a deep and engaging novel out of money matters, though she makes it about more than that. While at times Meriel-Claire is a bit robotic in her approach to the world and Daneen can verge on caricature, Mariel-Claire’s parents are rich, complex and fascinating characters, and the connections between all these people over the decades yield surprising insights and remarkable depth, culminating in a really wonderful story. Vryenhoak’s prose is bright and accessible, the novel fast-paced and compelling, and there is a startling originality to all of it.

September 29, 2015

Sir John’s Table, by Lindy Mechefske

pudding pre-bakingI could never be a food blogger for all kinds of reasons, one of which is that all my pots and serving dishes are indelibly stained and my kitchen is old and grubby (and poorly lit). The other important reason is that I tend to interpret recipes as general guidelines instead of instructions, but in the case of the new book, Sir John’s Table, by Lindy Mechefske, this turned out to be an advantage. It meant I was unafraid to take on the recipe for Sir John A’s Pudding from a cookbook from the 1880s, a recipe named in honour of the first Prime Minister of Canada, whose instructions included “size of an egg” for butter portioning, no word on what vessel to cook it in, and vague baking instructions as follows: “Bake in oven for a few minutes.”

We really weren’t sure. “This is an experiment,” I kept telling my family, and then asking them, “Isn’t living with me a glorious adventure?” No one answered. They were all a bit irritated that our main course had been roast cauliflower. “I bet none of your friends are having pudding tonight in honour of Canada’s first Prime Minister,” I told Harriet. She looked at me funny: “Mom, do we have any ice cream?”

finished puddingSir John A’s Pudding is from Dora’s Cook Book, by Dora E. Fairfield, published in 1888—one known copy is still publicly available. It is a bread pudding, the bottom made with bread crumbs, egg yolks and lots of milk. Spread on top are stiff egg whites and sugar. I baked the whole thing in the oven for much longer than a few minutes (though I can’t remember how long now—I am as bad as Dora). When it came out of the oven, the topping was nicely browned but the pudding still seemed a little gloopy (“But gloopy means delicious, right?” I asked. Nobody cheered.) However once it had been resting for a little while the pudding was set, and now it was finally time to dish it up and assess the damage.

pudding serving

Guess what: it was totally divine. And everyone conceded that living with me was an adventure after all, a most delicious one. I did my I’m always right dance. I always mostly am.

Though not, admittedly, with my immediate assessment of Mechefske’s book. Sir John’s Table: A Culinary Life and Times of Canada’s First Prime Minister as a concept did not seem at first compelling to me, but then I opened it up and started reading. And what I found was an engaging, light and fun and informative text. So engaging, yes, that it led me to attempt archaic heritage recipes, plus the book is also a really interesting biography of Canada’s first Prime Minister.

sir-johns-tableSince we’re going all Full Disclosure in this post, I will reveal to you that I’ve not watched any political debates during this current federal election. As these debates fail the Bechtel Test on every discernible level, are intellectually stupefying AND we don’t have TV, I’ve felt more comfortable getting my political information from newspapers instead. There is something about the absence of women’s voices and the general feeling that anything concerning women’s experiences is mere frippery that renders most politics (and political biographies) null and void to me. It’s grown-ups acting out playground games, and taking themselves far too seriously. It’s just inherently uninteresting.

Which is not to say that political biographies must necessarily contain a recipe for bread pudding, or that the domestic is anymore inherently a female purlieu, but it certainly was in the 19th century. Which means that “culinary life and times” of Sir John A. Macdonald is going to give special attention to the women in his life and the personal and political roles they played: his mother, his wives, his lifelong friend who was also a pub owner. We learn about the food (bannock!) his mother brought to feed her family on the long voyage from Scotland to Canada. Also about Macdonald’s favourite childhood desserts, how traditional British foods were adapted to North America, wedding cakes from the 1860s, mourning rituals (after the death of his first wife), how the picnics at which he made his famous stump speeches would have been catered (by Mrs. Beeton, at least), and just how a roast duck dinner managed to save the Dominion after all.

For a light book, Mechefske manages to be rigorous about colonial atrocities, juxtaposing a lavish Toronto dinner with Metis and First Nations people starving on the plains at the same time. Her story of the triumph of Sir John A’s railroad also includes a legacy of racism and exploitation of the Chinese workers who built it. She manages to balance her portrayal of the generous and charismatic Macdonald with the dark side of his legacy—also his own propensity for problems with drink: “He joined the Temperance Society  again,” is a sentence that pops up more than once.

My one criticism is that the recipes have not been adapted for modern cooks, and so are more a curiosity than something the reader can use. Although there is value too in these heritage recipes reprinted as they were, for what they tell us about how 19th century cooks did their work, how ingredients, measurements and cooking methods were different, and also the peculiar stylistic quirks of their writers. And my own experience certainly shows (who knew?!) that the intrepid 21st century cook can have success with these recipes all the  same.

September 27, 2015

Fishbowl, by Bradley Somer

fishbowlIt’s true what you might have heard about Bradley Somer’s Fishbowl being a novel that actually chronicles a goldfish’s plummet from the twenty-seventh floor balcony of a high rise apartment building. (I heard my first raves about this book from the Parnassus Books blog.) And yes, the goldfish parts of the novel are actually from the fish’s point of view: at one point, one eye is skyward, and the other is focussed on the ground—what must the world look like like that?; his brain is too limited for a train of thought—it’s more like a handcar. Yes, the fish’s name is name is Ian. And it’s also true what you might have heard about Fishbowl if the thing you’ve heard is that it’s great.

The structure of fishbowl is similar to the apartment building that is its setting, each unit home to its own story, stories stacked on top of stories. Common spaces are spare, unremarkable. Nobody lingers there. For each character it’s easy to imagine that he or she is alone in the world, to disregard the sound of footsteps overhead. But one day when the elevator breaks down, the illusion is shattered. Suddenly lives are intersecting in curious, irrevocable ways. A baby is about to be born. An old man has died. A cheating lover is about to meet his comeuppance. A lonely burly crossdressing construction worker is about to feel more beautiful than he’s ever felt before. And Ian the goldfish is about to be launched upon the ride of his life.

Eschewing a linear narrative for something more like a fish’s grasp of eternity, the novel takes place over a half hour or so, moving back and forth within that span of time (and sometime telescoping omnisciently into a distant future) to examine the period from a variety of points of view. For those ascending the building’s staircase—the elevator is broken, remember—time moves in slow motion, ploddingly, exhaustingly. For the lying cheat upstairs who is hurriedly ridding his bachelor suite of all signs of debauchery, time moves much too fast, not enough of it to allow him to clear away the evidence. For the woman whose baby is coming, everything is happening much too quickly, but also taking forever. And when she finally manages to reach her boyfriend at the pub, he tells her that he’ll be there—after one more round.

Fishbowl is a novel about relativity and relationships, and infinite interconnectedness of things. It’s also funny, absorbing, poignant, rich with twists and surprises, smartly plotted, deep and intelligent. And heartwarming—if you’re into that kind of thing. Underlining that although a person might be lonely, she is never really alone.

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