April 24, 2017
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
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
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
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.”
March 27, 2017
I can’t help it, I need to read a short story collection like a novel. By “like a novel” I mean “like a book,” compelled to keep turning the pages. While I admire those who can dip in and out of a collection, read a story at a time, I’ve come to accept that in general, I’m never going to be that guy. If we’re speaking in terms of appetites and birds, when it comes to books I’m a raven. Which means I appreciate a short story collection like Eva Crocker’s debut, Barrelling Forward, whose momentum is suggested by its title.
The first story is “Dealing With Infestation” about a young teacher whose apartment is freezing and infested with something that’s left him itchy with a rash, when he embarks upon an ill-advised foray with his gym-teacher colleague. In “Auditioning,” a set of teenage twins are trying to get gigs acting in commercials, and one must resort to desperate measures to register her distaste with the whole exercise. In “Full-Body Experience,” an exercise instructor tries to get over the death of her sorta-boyfriend in a car accident. “Serving” is from the perspective of a father (middle-age man who works as a server in a family restaurant) and his teenage son, about the father’s innocent (?) relationship with a co-worker, and his colonoscopy. Work and family similarly intertwine in “All Set Up,” about a young father who waffles between contentment with his domestic situation and yearning for more. In “The Landlord,” a young waitress pushes the line about how far she’d go in order to avoid being evicted from her apartment. “Lucky Ones” is a tale of lottery tickets and Sherry, who’s taking care of her boyfriend’s baby while he works the night shift.
Eva Crocker’s stories of work and family life are reflective of modern realities, but underlined by more traditional notions of breadwinning and family structure, her characters are getting stuck in the gaps between these, sometimes perilously. All of these characters are gambling something, still hoping their ship will come in, which keeps the stories buoyant instead of bleak. And while not all the stories are equally successful, and this will be the kind of book that will frustrate you if you’re the type who disdains short stories for ending too soon, it’s a debut that positively sparkles with talent. Here’s hoping Crocker’s career achieves similar momentum as well.
March 23, 2017
“There is no good answer to how to be a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.” —Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions
Do you remember where you were when you discovered Rebecca Solnit? I do—I was listening to The Sunday Edition on CBC and she was talking about her book, The Faraway Nearby, a book that had a line of prose running throughout the bottom of every page. I read The Faraway Nearby, and fell in love with it, writing this effusive response. This was in 2013. In 2013, we still didn’t know that the world would fall apart and that I’d come to rely on Rebecca Solnit so much to put the pieces back together.
Solnit started particularly steeping in the zeitgeist with her 2012 essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” which lead to the term “mansplaining” although she’s far too elegant a writer to have invented it. The essay was part of a collection of the same name on feminism that was published in 2014, which was the same year that many of the essays in her latest, The Mother of All Questions, were written. “I’ve been waiting all my life forget what 2014 has brought,” her essay, “An Insurrectionary Year” begins, about that “watershed year” in which conversations about rape and sexual violence started changing. It seems like a long time ago now.
There is a Rebecca Solnit book for every moment—and sometimes for two of them. Her collection of essays Hope in the Dark was first published 2004 in light of George Bush’s re-election and the American invasion in Iraq in spite of global demonstrations for peace the likes of which had never been seen before. After the 2016 US election, the book was reprinted and I read it with such gratitude—it gave me comfort. I was reading it as we marched on January 21, and it made me feel buoyant for the first time in months. It indeed brought me hope, and perspective. There have been hard times before, activism is always a process, it’s always too soon to go home, and that you never know what effects your actions will achieve. There are grounds for hope. It’s a reason to bother.
The Mother of All Questions is another book about feminism, although it reads less triumphantly than such a book might have a short time ago. Before the patriarchy saw fit to elect an incompetent sexual predator to its highest office, because the alternative was a smart and qualified woman who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. They sure showed her though, and all of us, where we’re at in terms of gender politics and equality. It is true that with the elections all my illusions about feminism and progress went kaput, and I’ve been functioning in a state of perpetual heartbreak ever since then. To think I’ve been raising my daughters to have a voice and to take for granted that their ideas and input would be valued by the world—what was I even thinking?
The ideas Solnit takes on here involve silences: “Being unable to tell your story is a living death and sometimes a literal one.” She writes about the people who weren’t permitted to speak, and the tales that weren’t allowed to be told. She writes about the men who are silenced by patriarchal forces, from being themselves, telling their own stories. She writes about rape, consent, domestic violence. She writes about the silence that occurs because no one is listening. About new and difficult conversations that have started to happen in the last twenty years or so, attempts to reconcile the unreconcilable (and the backlash). Most of these essays have appeared elsewhere and I’ve read a few of them, but it does me good to read them here assembled all together. There are many ways that I process the world, but reading Rebecca Solnit is a very important one of them. It’s true, I don’t read for her interrogation. I read her for comfort. Wanting comfort is not such a terrible thing.
However. “All your faves are problematic,” somebody tweeted last week, possibly in response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments about transwomen. And it’s true, and Adichie’s comments were ignorant and she’s not the spokesperson for every single living thing, but I’m not sure there is anybody who isn’t problematic. Remember the year we had to keep quiet about our admiration for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton because she too had failed to be perfect? And I went along with that. It was a silence. To admit one’s lack of socialist principles, and her Iraq war vote. She was the establishment, and there was Wall Street. She wasn’t even cool. Similarly, I had go to keep my excitement about Caitlin Moran’s new book on the downlow because she was racist and ignorant in a tweet in 2011. Which was problematic. But everybody is problematic. (It also seems that there is nothing more problematic than a woman being popular. Or in particular being popular with other woman. If too many women like you, then you’ve suddenly lost all your cred.)
I think we need to give women the space to be problematic though. I think we have let our feminist heroes cause trouble, and be wrong, and not even to atone if they don’t want to. We need to let people complicate things. We need to let others rail against it. That’s how progress happens. That’s how truth emerges. Uncertainty is okay, containers are porous. And I keep returning to the quote I started this essay with, “There is no good answer to how to be a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.” Rebecca Solnit keeps refusing it admirably.
March 19, 2017
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.
March 1, 2017
I never had what Kassi Underwood terms as a “post-abortion meltdown”, which is the sentence I initially planned to open this review with, but then upon pondering I started to recall things I’d long ago forgotten. Such as that in the months after my abortion, I started working with a colleague whose girlfriend was pregnant, accidentally, and they were making a go of it together, and everything about their arrangement made me feel incredibly lonely. I would become unnecessarily preoccupied with the details of their lives. I feared that if I’d perhaps squandered my one chance to have a family. I remember a conversation with my best friend about reconciling feminist principles with my sadness about my situation, and then I remember waking up on the first day of what would have been the last month of my pregnancy and crying hysterically without even knowing why, as though my body knew before my mind did that something had been lost. But I also know that I felt much better after that. And later that year I would get the woman symbol tattooed upon my ankle, as a way to remember without having to actually remember, and it must have worked because all this seems far away and vastly unimportant now. When I look at the tattoo on my ankle, I don’t even remember that my abortion was a reason for it. “My abortion is the foundation of feminism,” is the thing I always say now, and it’s all conflated. My feminism is also a foundation of me. So you see, it’s with me always, even these if days I barely recognize it.
(The interesting thing about the preceding paragraph is that not once do I affirm that in spite of my sadness, my abortion was still the right decision. When I wrote the paragraph, it never occurred to me to do so. And now after, I’ve gone back and tried to insert the sentence, but there is nowhere it fits properly. I’d only be writing it anyway to give assurance to you, my reader, but so now I’m going to do a radical thing and not even bother with that. Inspired by Kassi Underwood’s example, I am going to present my abortion as a thing that happened in my life that is ordinary enough and extraordinary enough to exist outside—and between, above and beyond—the simplified bounds of morality.)
So no, I didn’t have a “post-abortion meltdown” per-se, but then I don’t have Kassi Underwood’s remarkable flair for the dramatic. As a writer, a narrator, and a literary character, she comes across as a person who does nothing halfway, which might explain how she ended up with an alcohol addiction, but then it also explains how she turned her post-abortion story into a spiritual journey, what I’ve been calling the Eat Pray Love of abortion memoirs, the recently-released May Cause Love.
It was a book that made me really uncomfortable in places, which is saying something, because I talk about abortion all the time. But I’ve never talked about how the way that Underwood does, confronting uncomfortable truths about the experience, daring to consider its spiritual aspects. And so this was a book that expanded my mind. She begins her story in childhood, growing up in Kentucky with strong ideas about family and motherhood and the kind of woman she wants to be. It all goes a bit wrong (the love of her life is serving overseas, she’s in her first year at college and gets knocked up by a junkie) and she gets pregnant. The decision to have an abortion isn’t an agonizing one (and I am willing to entertain the notion that it only ever really is on television) but then it’s getting over it that’s the hard part. Acknowledging her sadness at not feeling ready to have her baby at that time, and then having to deal with the same guy having a baby with someone else just a couple of years later—her realization that she could have made a different choice. Getting over her abortion is also complicated though because it’s the urge to make good of her second chance that got her sober, that drove Underwood to make something of herself—who would she be without that drive? The questions she has and the ideas she grapples with aren’t the ones you ever read about in news coverage so fixed on the polarity of the abortion debate, but they’re so much more interesting, and kind, and useful.
The memoir chronicles her experiences learning about the spirituality of abortions, including taking part in a Japanese ritual for mourning abortions, to a Catholic post-abortion retreat (which is kind of horrifying, but Underwood’s lack of judgement is admirable [ps I now have this fantasy of telling pro-lifers that I’m not judging them, the same way they like to tell me that, and just seeing what they make of that]), a witchy Jewish circle of wild women helping her release her burden, meeting with an abortion grief specialist, and taking a five-day vow of silence in an isolated cabin in Vermont. She yearns to make peace with her decision, to find her way forward in her life, and to reconcile the seemingly contradictory experiences of her abortion—that the experience of pregnancy meant something to her, that her baby was a baby, that if she hadn’t had an abortion her ex-‘s daughter wouldn’t be alive today, and that somehow her abortion had been an act of love.
May Cause Love is a strange book, not just in terms of subject matter, but in structure and tone. As a narrator, Underwood is tricky, breezy, rendered unsteady sometimes in present tense instead of steeped in context and explanation. She’s also completely audacious, in the most incredible way—imagine not only not apologizing for owning your own soul, but demanding to be transported to a higher plane. It was so refreshing and illuminating to read about abortion in these terms, and while the storyline about the boy she spends years hung up was much less compelling to me than everything else, sometimes that’s the way that life goes. And life itself is full of surprises, just like this remarkable book.
February 26, 2017
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
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.