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Pickle Me This

January 8, 2020

A Delicious, Meandering Journey

‘Interestingly, I find myself leaping/flipping/scrolling past the “best of” lists and instead gravitating more and more to the reflections about reading as exploration, revelation, often deliciously meandering journey, shared experience, opportunity to bust out of staid categories and forge new ones … and more.’ —Vicki Ziegler

Sometimes I think I spend my whole year reading just go get to this point, when the best-of lists are compiled, required reads for book club or review assignments are completed, when the literary year is done and dusted…but there’s still at least a week of time for reading left.

Which is when I turn off my WiFi, take an internet break, out-of-office reply—”I’ll get back to you in the new year.” And I sit down to read.

I read differently in the holidays, when the working is all done. Instead of new releases (because I don’t want to miss a thing), I turn to yellowed paperbacks purchased at book sales, back-list titles by authors I love, strange books plucked from Little Free Libraries, and rescued from the streets. Books that are easy not to make a priority in my literary year, but on holiday, they take precedent—and my reading life is so much more interesting for it.

They weren’t all winners—after having now read two books by Ottessa Moshfegh, I think I can finally conclude that her work is just not to my taste, for example. But altogether, these books were part of why my holiday was so lovely—and I loved too their connections, how they spoke to one another, as though book after book was just one book, and the story flowed and almost made sense.

Of course, it wasn’t all obscure. Ben Lerner’s new novel, The Topeka School, is one of the top rated books of 2019, and I bought it after hearing Lerner and his mother Harriet Lerner (author of iconic book The Dance of Anger) on a podcast. Hot tip: if you want to me to buy a book by a man, make him fictionalize his feminist mother in that book and even give her a point of view. I’d already tried to read The Topeka School twice, but had been diverted, not because anything was wrong with it, but other books kept showing up before I got to page 12. Finally got past page 12 (third time’s charm) and really liked this one, and had my mind-scrambled by its meta-ness. It was such a curious and interesting book, which captures a cultural moment (1997) that was pivotal in my own experience (I turned 18 that year, and the memories are very vivid) and connects that moment in several ways to our present.

I also read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, another top book of 2019, and am so glad I did—plus it reminded me of Jesmyn Ward’s 2018 Sing Unburied Sing, I loved the depiction of 1970s’ New York, and oh, the twist. The book is brutal, but there is more to the novel than just that.

The third 2019 book I read was Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, which I got for Christmas. I never get books for Christmas, because I’m very much a self-directed book buyer—but my husband heard me talking about how I was more than 500th on a wait-list for this book at the library, and bought it for me. And I loved it so much. Probably deserves a post of its own, but yes, it had everything and was so devourable—by Boxing Day, I’d got to the end.

Had very much a New York streak going on, especially between the Brooklyn of Lerner’s book and Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary, and Fleishman and My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

And then I left town to finally finish Elizabeth McCracken’s Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry, her first book re-released along with her latest, the novel Bowlaway (a novel that was delicious and meandering itself, and also one of my favourite books of the year). The mingling humour and sadness—she’s such an incredible writer.

And then Woolf’s Night and Day, which I bought in the summer after I saw an ad on Instagram for a 1970s version of the novel whose cover I fell for. It’s always funny to be reading early Woolf, back when her narrative style was so conventional. The characters were a bit wooden, and the story more about ideas than its people actually being realized, but it was still really enjoyable, and Woolf after all.

And speaking of conventional, Penelope Fitzgerald is conventional never, but The Beginning of Spring (which I finished reading on the morning of New Year’s Eve) is perhaps the most straightforward of her novels that I have read. (As I’ve written before, learning to appreciate Penelope Fitzgerald is a project of mine.) I like to read a bit of Penelope Fitzgerald during the holidays out of nostalgia for the year I read her biography by Hermione Lee, which was one of the best reading extravaganzas I have ever had. Anyway, The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in 1913, and this reviewer calls it Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. I really loved it.

Before the year was out, I had also finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, a book she wrote in Italian about the experience of learning and then to committing to reading and writing in Italian. (Which would lead me to Natalia Ginzburg—but first!!)

First, I ended 2019 and started 2020 with At the Pond, a collection of essays (a gift from my friend Nathalie) about swimming at London’s Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, contributors including two of my favourite swimlit stars (Leanne Shapton and Jessica J. Lee) AND my very favourite everything, Margaret Drabble. Nice to be returned to the London of Night and Day, although Katharine Hilbery never went swimming.

(On New Year’s Eve, Stuart and I both had Taylor Swift’s “London Boy” in our head, which is a terrible song, the situation exacerbated by the London locations of our respective reads [Stuart is LOVING Girl Woman Other, which, incidentally, was the second book I broke up with Ben Lerner for] and every time anyone in my book mentioned Highgate, I’d start singing, “…And I love his best mate. All the rumours are true…”)

Two things I loved about At the Pond: cultural diversity of the authors made it such a more interesting collection than it might have been. And the essay by nonbinary writer So Mayer on their complicated relationship with the space “for women only”—which has long welcomed transwomen among them without fuss, save for the activists who showed up at a recent community meeting in furor about this.

Then I read The Secret Sisterhood, about women’s literary friendships, which I bought in March on a weekend in Niagara on the Lake with my two best friends of more than a quarter century. The Jane Austen chapter was a bit slight, but I enjoyed the book and nice to bring things around with the final section on Woolf and Katherine Mansfield—especially since it focussed at lot on Night and Day (which Mansfield wrote a scathing review of, which made their friendship at bit…awkward).

And finally, All Our Yesterdays, by Natalia Ginzburg, the kind of book that it might be possible to put off reading forever, because it’s old with an unappealing cover, and pages and pages of dense text. I’d bought it at a colleage book sale last year after reading Gizburg’s essay collection Little Virtues, but novel sat unread on my shelf. And then I gave it away to my local Little Free Library, which I regretted after running into an Italian-Canadian friend at the library who was returning a pile of Ginzburg’s novels in their original language. She extolled the authors virtues, so when I happened to walk by the Little Free Library and saw All Our Yesterdays up for grabs, I stole it back. Finally cracking it open now because Jhumpa Lahiri had also written about Ginzburg, and it seemed like a sign.

I loved this book. Sweeping, strange, curious and compelling, it’s the story of two families in Northern Italy and how they change as WW2 arrives and continues. The narrative is very matter-of-fact and understated, creating a sense of inevitability (it actually reminded me a but of Girl Woman Other, how a single story can contain so much and so broadly). The banality of living under Fascism, and then occupied Italy after the Germans arrive, and the casual brutality of war.

Now I really want to track down a copy of Ginzburg’s Family Sayings, which won the Strega Prize and which seems to be cited as her best work. (PS Just found out it’s in print with the title Family Lexicon. YAY!!)

December 9, 2019

Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo

Photo of a cup of tea (in a fancy cup with saucer) on a table beside GIRL WOMAN OTHER by Bernardine Evaristo.

It’s so good. It’s that simple. Girl, Woman, Other is the first book by Black woman to ever win the Booker Prize (a long time coming, right?) and so you should read it, but you’ll also want to . You will start reading and not want to put this book down, and in the meantime you’ll be raving about it to strangers on the streetcar. That is, if your experience is anything like mine.

Evaristo has explained the style of the novel as “fusion fiction”: “that’s what it felt like, with the absence of full stops, the long sentences. The form is very free-flowing and it allowed me to be inside the characters’ heads and go all over the place – the past, the present.” Ostensibly about a single evening in London as a play by a Black lesbian playwright opens at the National Theatre, the novel spans the twentieth century, moves between communities in Britain, Africa and the Americas, and tells the story of twelve central characters from birth to death in a few cases, and in others to the present day. It’s a novel “about Black womanhood,” but what falls under that umbrella is wide-ranging, kaleidoscopic, diverse and disagreeing in the most fascinating way. This is a novel that’s rich with twists and connections, and surprises.

The characters include Amma, the aforementioned playwright, who recalls her radical days in contrast to now being considered establishment (or as much as a Black woman could ever be); her daughter who must find new ways to rebel against her counterculture parents; and her longtime friend and former collaborative partner, who fell in love and moved to a feminist commune in America where she becomes trapped in an abusive relationship.

The connections are not always clear at first—Carole, a superstar in the world of finance, is attending Amma’s play, but she’s part of the tapestry in other ways as well, and so is her mother, Bummi, who steers the following section, telling the story from her youth in Nigeria, her immigration to England, the death of her husband, and her determination to build a business and succeed—as well as her disappointment at how her own daughter’s success has put distance between them. And then we meet LaTisha, once upon a time Carole’s classmate, but her life took on a different kind of trajectory.

Amma’s childhood friend, Shirley, who teaches unruly youths at a London school, who started out teaching with big dreams and great ideals, which become ground into nothing after working through the Thatcherification and bureaucratization of teaching and society in general in the 1980s. And Shirley’s mother, Winsome, whose own story comes with a surprising twist, and Penelope, Shirley’s colleague, who’s got one of her own.

And then a non-binary social media influencer, Morgan, and their great-grandmother, Hattie, who lives on the family farm near Newcastle, and her own mother, Grace, which takes us to long before and far away from the opening night of Amma’s play, but everything is connected, in satisfying and illuminating ways.

That a single novel can hold so much is extraordinary —and that it can do it while being stylistically innovative and so joyful to behold is even more so. Girl, Woman, Other is magnificent, and honestly, it’s the only Booker winner you need.

December 3, 2019

Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann

“Well, there’s a book I’m never going to read,” was my first thought upon hearing about Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, the 1000 page book consisting of (mainly) a single sentence, shortlisted for the Man Booker and winner of the Goldsmiths’s Prize. Because you know how there are people who carry about tote-bags that say, “I like big books and I cannot lie?” I am not one of those people. I don’t like big books, not at all, not because of the heft necessarily (check out my own tote-bag, where I’m often carrying no less than three hardcovers at a time. I can lug book weight), but because for me so much of the pleasure of reading is thinking about what I’m going to be reading next, and the same book for weeks at a time slows me down, makes me feel like I’m standing still. Long books don’t fit easily into the pattern of my life. It’s also a huge demand to make of a reader as well, 1000 whole pages, and I’m usually irritated by anybody who’d dare to ask it.

You can keep Your Struggle, buddy. I’ve got enough of my own.

The shift began from Twitter commentary, however . (Yes, it turns out Twitter has a purpose after all.) Steven Beattie tweeted that it read up quick, and by the time Biblioasis Publisher Dan Wells had sent me an email promising that this would be a novel right up my street, I’d already started reading it.

With Ducks, Newburyport, I did what I always do with huge and overwhelming challenges, which is that I broke it down into manageable pieces. Though I have heard others making a solid commitment to the novel, going in for the long haul, and they report enormous pay-offs, because it’s an amazing novel, and what a thing to give it one’s entire focus. But that’s not the reality of my reading life right now, where focus gets spread thin, and there are so many other books I have to read in the meantime, so instead of going all in for Ducks, I committed to reading 5 or 10 pages every night, and I liked that it was the kind of book that was easy to dive in and out of again. If I’m going to read 1000 pages, this is way I would like it to happen. It’s give and take.

And so it took me three months to read it, as opposed to binge-reading, and this has had a curious effect on my life. As though Ducks, Newburyport was like a plant with amorphous tendrils, and as I read, they crept their way into every facet of my life, until I was no longer sure where I ended, and Ducks, Newburyport began.

“That’s a lot like Ducks, Newburyport,” began to be the thing I said at parties, or on Twitter, no matter the topic, really, because everything is a bit like Ducks, Newburyport. Or perhaps what I mean is that Ducks, Newburyport is like life itself, which is the point of the exercise. Somebody talking about how they can never remember the word for nasturtiums, and maybe the unnamed narrator of Ducks, Newburyport had been talking about hydrangeas, but such distinctions mattered as much as the distinction between fiction and life. Everything was blurry.

It’s not accurate to say that this book is a single sentence, clauses conjoined by commas and the phrase “the fact that” to form the stream of consciousness of an Ohio woman baking pies and cookies in her kitchen, because to say this would be to forget about the parts of the novel that are written from the perspective of a cougar. Or a mountain lion, “the lioness.” What kind of novel is this anyway?

It’s the kind of novel that’s concerned with ordinary things, the mundane, the domestic. Except what does it mean that among these things ordinary and domestic are mass shootings and domestic homicides, a lunatic president and the rise of ethno-nationalism? These things melding in with the other, as our unnamed narrator caramelizes apples for tartes tatin, and fails to avoid painfully stepping on her son’s plastic toys, and worries about her distant teenage daughter, and thinks about the amazing fact of her love for her husband, never mind the sorry state of her libido, especially since her recovery from cancer not so long ago, rotting window frames and the guilt she feels for her failure to be a proper parent to her four children at the time, and she’s still not over the death of her own mother, and how their whole family fell apart during the years her mother was ill, and now her husband works so hard, is often travelling, and she adds to their income with her home baking business, because they’re broke after all her healthcare bills, supplying local shops and restaurants, her labour too blurs boundaries, both paid and domestic. And undervalued all of it.

Oh oh my gosh, the popular culture, classic films, and Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman (and how he was mean to her during Kramer Vs Kramer, when she’s a better actor than she’ll ever be), and the passages about Julie & Julia (“only we hate the Julie bits…”) and so much ruminating about Little House on the Prairie (as you do…), and bridge building (her husband, Leo, is an engineer), and musical theatre, and Harrison Ford and Witness, and the bee at Bread Loaf. Always, the bee at Bread Loaf, and we never actually learn anything about the fact of the bee at Bread Loaf, but other parts of the story we begin to be able to put together, puzzling out, like who is Abby, and her first marriage to Frank, and what happened to her mother, and the fact of the ducks at all. And Newburyport.

And oh, the angst of baking, her worries about sending these goods out into the world never sure that they’ve turned out successfully, because the proof is in the eating, and you can’t control it all. She’s got a freezer packed with failed experiments in lemon drizzle cake, not bad enough to be abject disasters, but not good enough to sell, and she feels guilty subjecting her children to it. Children are never enthusiastic about lemon drizzle cake anyway, the lack of frosting. Who’s actually enthusiastic about lemon drizzle cake anyway? Lemon drizzle cake existential angst, I mean. I’ve never felt so seen before. The kind of stuff that keeps me up at night.

There’s a chicken coop, and pets, and time passes, weeks and months, and in the breaks, the lioness wanders with her cubs, on overpasses and through thickets, across backyards and down into ravines, and she would like to keep her distance from humans, but she cant help it, and she becomes separated from the cubs, who are taken away in a truck to the Columbus Zoo.

Ohio is a funny place, not so different from the stories about the Florida men, really. Insane abortion laws and women kept captive in basements, and fact and fiction blurs too as our narrator recounts the stories she’s heard, news headlines. Some of them true, but it starts to feel like all of them are factual, because everything else in the novel is so familiar after all, that it becomes uncanny how much of it is not uncanny, when possibly it should be. What does it say about the world we live in (and all of us, in general) if it isn’t?

To celebrate my completion of this novel, I made my own tarte tatin. It was not a great success, which I already kind of knew it wouldn’t be, having read the book and learned that caramelization is not easy,

Against this backdrop of her stream-of-consciousness, a lot actually happens, although you could almost miss it, because the tone of the narrative never changes whether she’s concerned about puff pastry or is actually imperilled. She gets stranded in a snowstorm while out delivering pies, and takes her family to a mall whose parking lots entrance is washed away in a flash flood (which is the kind of thing that happens now, in Ohio and elsewhere), and then her daughter goes missing, seemingly every mother’s worst nightmare, save for another one which she comes face-to-face with by the novel’s end. But no spoilers…

Is there such thing as a pre-apocalyptic novel, was a thing I wondered as I read this book, an ordinary story with such ominousness at its margins, and creeping ever-closer, which is pretty close to how it feels sometimes to live in the world right now.

It was a commitment, this book, even if the smaller pieces I broke it into, and the other night as I finished it, I could not quite fathom what it would be like to not have this book sitting on my bedside. Three months is a long time, a quarter of a year, and as I read this novel, weeks went by, the season changed, we celebrated holidays and birthdays, had a federal election, I baked tens of dozens of muffins, and now the book itself feels indelibly connected with all of it.

This novel’s outsizedness, its audacity, is a statement on the curious proportions of life itself. What gets to be an epic? The fact that (as she’d put it) I might have spent more time ruminating on a disappointing drizzle cake than yesterday’s mass shooting; climate change and (not or) a teenage daughter’s petulance; saving the world and raising one’s children; a single person against the enormity of the human population—it’s all enough to make you go cross-eyed, to be honest. How do you understand it all, attempt to contain it all?

With this novel, however, Ellmann gets come close. A book that seems like a feat of endurance, at first, but turns out to be so much more than that.

November 28, 2019

Five Wives, by Joan Thomas

There’s a possibility I might have let the year pass me by without picking up Joan Thomas’s latest, Five Wives, winner of the 2019 Governor General’s Award for Fiction. And what a disaster that would have been, my reading year without one of the best books of the year included. But disaster was averted because I finally picked up the novel last week, and it was one of those experiences like I mentioned while I was writing about The Dutch House. As in, I was instantly enveloped and not remotley moved to clean my bathroom . (Full disclosure: this novel was actually one of those books I read in the bath until the water got so cold…)

Based on the true story of a group of American evangelical missionaries murdered in the Ecuador jungle in 1956 after making contact with an isolated Indigenous group, Thomas blurs fact and fiction fascinatingly in Five Wives—as she did with her earlier novel, Curiosity, which imaged the life of nineteenth century fossil hunter Mary Anne Anning. Billed as “in the tradition of The Poisonwood Bible,” I actually found the novel more in conversation with Miriam Toews’ Women Talking (with shades of Irma Voth!) in its consideration of the role of women in religious communities, in religion in general, and also with the fraught question of female solidarity. Because as with the women of Women Talking, and women anywhere, actually, and with people in general, the women of Five Wives do not speak with a single voice and view their shared story through very different lenses.

Although when the novel begins, theirs is a collective voice, “the wives,” in the immediate aftermath of the deaths of their husbands. The narrator does not distinguish these women, who themselves are “putting the story together”of what had befallen the men. A story that would become legend in evangelical circles, a story Thomas herself grew up hearing told, as she explains in her interview at 49thShelf. But in her novel, she complicates this mythology and explores the way in which story and narrative is constructed from the raw material of facts.

The novel’s present day story line concerns a young woman called Abby, whose mother and father had each lost their own fathers in the massacre, and had grown up steeped in the story, as her father, David, a pastor, also had. This part of the novel begins at the funeral of Abby’s maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Elliot (a real life figure whose own writings have been instrumental in spreading the story of what happened in the Ecuadorian jungle, and how the Waorani people eventually did convert to Christianity, thereby ensuring that this story of martyrdom ended in triumph and glory). And now Abby has lost her faith, much to the chagrin of her father, and we see the tension between them as she tries to find her own way, which challenges David’s own faith, in many things, including the truth of what he knows about what happened to his father and the story his family continues to tell about it to the world.

More central to the plot are the stories of the wives themselves, however, and their own struggles and challenges, those things they are sure of and that which they doubt. Abby’s grandmother, Betty, for whom missionary work was a vocation, and then Olive, who has followed her husband to Ecuador (and we meet her in the years before her marriage, when she’s attending university and developing independence from her religious family), and Marj, David’s mother, who ran the guesthouse where so many of the missionaries stayed, and her relationship with her sister-in-law, Rachel, the one woman in the group who is nobody’s wife. (“Goodness is more complicated that Marj ever imagined.”

And then Cornell Capa, the photographer from Life Magazine, who took the photographs that showed what happened in the jungle to the world—also a real-life character to whom Thomas grants a fictional inner life. And in the contemporary timeline, a film is being made about the massacre, and so there are lots of opportunities for Thomas to play with and complicate the idea of truth and myth and how stories get told.

The novel is a puzzle, pieces fitting together in surprising ways. The women’s own stories are not told chronologically, and overlap in some aspects and there are gaps in others, and not all the women are as central to the story. There is cultural appeal in this novel about mid-20th century womanhood and wifehood, which Thomas complicates interestingly, in addition to the layer of faith, religion and colonialism which complicates everything even more.

November 13, 2019

Agnes, Murderess, by Sarah Leavitt

“When Did Everybody Become a Witch” was the title of an article a friend sent me a few weeks ago, a friend from my coven, no less, and I was still thinking about the article on Halloween night (of course) when I settled down to read Agnes, Murderess. The second book by Sarah Leavitt, whose first was the acclaimed graphic memoir Tangles: A Story About Alzheimers, My Mother and Me, this one tells the story of Agnes McVee, a legendary 19th century serial killer who ran a roadhouse in 108 Mile House, BC. A woman of whose actual existence there is no evidence, except for a self-published pamphlet by an amateur historian from 1973.

“I have thus felt free to reimagine Agnes’s story from her childhood to her death,” Leavitt writes in her book’s afterward, and the whole book becomes an exploration of storytelling and myth making. It begins on an island in the Scottish Hebrides, where young Agnes lives with her grandmother, who really does seem to be a witch, and her mother, who was stolen away from a genteel life in London by a seafaring man who brought her to his home and then disappeared forever. For reasons that might be familiar if you’ve ever read stories about witches, Agnes and her grandmother are not too popular with the local townsfolk, though she finds an affinity with a young man from the village, and together (desperate times call for desperate measures) Agnes and Seamus find a way for her to escape her grandmother’s yoke and head off to London together. But it turns out that her grandmother wasn’t Agnes’s whole problem after all, or maybe she was because Agnes senses the woman’s presence still haunting her, stirring her, pulling away from the kind of life she is striving for. A life which she glimpses further through a friendship with an upper-class woman who gives her books to read and the companionship she’s looking for—and then a humiliating betrayal changes everything, cementing Agnes’s trajectory toward a life in Canada and, yes, punctuated by acts of murder.

It’s a complicated story, with everything queered—not least of which is the line between truth and fiction. Is Agnes a villain? And if she is, what does it mean that she might have our sympathy? Are we, too, bewitched? And what does it mean that these stories of transgressive women at our particular moment in time? Most interestingly, Leavitt leaves these questions unresolved. As her drawings are simply sketched, so too is the story, providing plenty of room in which the reader can sit uneasily.

November 5, 2019

The Dutch House

I knew I was in trouble the night I was reading in the tub, and then called for my husband to bring in a box of baking soda and a cloth so I could scrub the grout between the wall tiles. My grout is dodgy at the best of times, but it really does take a special level of “not into a book” to drive me to clean my bathroom instead. Which was not the case with Ann Patchett’s latest novel The Dutch House, which I finished reading last night in a two hour whirlwind. Patchett’s books are a bit hit-and-miss with me—truth be told, I didn’t love Commonwealth. I liked it. It didn’t drive me to scrub the tiles, I mean, but it didn’t live up to my high expectations. Oh, but The Dutch House swept me away, and the twists and turns were never what I’d expected them to be. I have no idea how you’d dream up a narrative like this, the form and shape of it, I mean. I’ve been thinking about the specificity of the narrative of Ian Williams’ Reproduction, and this book is similar, the curious shape of family and of life and how few books actually manage to properly express that.

October 24, 2019

Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline

How does an author follow up a success like The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline’s bestselling novel that won so many awards and prizes that they ran out of room on the cover? The most straightforward answer I can think of was also Dimaline’s herself, which was to publish Empire of Wild, a book that’s unabashedly excellent, gripping, funny, gorgeous, and dark. I read this book when I was taking part of in a read-a-thon last weekend. No, not that one that is my life, but the other one, raising money for metastatic breast cancer research. And Empire of Wild was the perfect novel for this experience—I couldn’t put it down, even if I’d wanted to.

It’s a book that reminded me a bit of Bad Ideas, another one of my favourite novels this year, about impossible love and what it means to believe in it. Empire of Wild begins with Joan, whose husband Victor has been missing for almost a year. He’d left the house after an argument they’d had about selling her family’s land. Hasn’t been seen since, though Joan’s not given up hope of his return just yet. And then one early morning, nursing a hangover, Joan walks into a revival tent in a Wal-Mart parking lot and discovers a man she knows is Victor, but he’s also a preacher whose name is Eugene Wolff. So who is he anyway? And what’s up with these holy rollers who seem to turn up in Indigenous communities who are making deals with big mining companies? Add to the mix a Rogarou, a werewolf-like creature from Metis stories, and you’ve got a plot-driven thriller on your hands.

Will Joan succeed in finding her husband again? Is Victor even still alive? With her Johnny Cash-obsessed nephew riding shotgun, Joan sets out to discover the answer to these questions, risking her own life in the process, and the result is an absolute terrific read, as powerful as it’s propulsive, plus the humour even in the darkness, savvy and self-aware lines like, “Sure hope those jackasses haven’t built over the spot. If they have, I hope those scary movies having it right and building over old Indian stuff makes your kids disappear into televisions.”

October 17, 2019

Daughters of Silence, by Rebecca Fisseha

Rebecca Fisseha’s novel Daughters of Silence is dazzling, partly because it’s particularly well crafted, but also in the sense that it messes up your vision a bit, that you’re not quite sure what you’re seeing at first. Because the book is a puzzle, a mystery unfolding, and also a circle. I’m so grateful that I had the chance to read it twice, because it’s one of those marvels, a novel that get better and richer with every encounter.

The first time I read it was in the spring in manuscript form after I’d received a message from its editor, who was once my editor, Bethany Gibson, asking if I’d consider blurbing the book. And Gibson’s passion for the novel as so apparent in her message that I agreed without hesitation. I read the novel, and I liked it, the ending in particular. I wrote, “Featuring gorgeous prose and a most compellingly prickly narrator, Fisseha’s debut novel is a puzzle, a page-turner, and a triumph.”

But then I reread the book two weeks ago in anticipation of my conversation with Fisseha at her book launch last weekend, and I wanted to go back to my blurb if only to underline it emphatically at least a million times.

Fisseha comes at her story with a singular, distinctive style, and a character who’s not here to make friends. No, instead Dessie is working to uncover the truth in her own history, the history of her family, truths she’s spent decades unable to face, hiding abuse and trauma in which the people who loved her were partly complicit, and the reader is simply along for the journey, following Dessie as she makes impulsive leaps and takes her own road. Unable to hide from her past anymore, because she’s stuck back in Addis Ababa, her birthplace, after her plane is one of thousands grounded all over the world after the eruption of an Icelandic volcano. Disturbances in the atmosphere, you know, but where the planes can’t fly, Dessie herself manages to discover some clarity, some answers, especially about the experiences of her mother who has recently died and has been buried in Toronto, not back in Ethiopia as had been what was expected.

In her essay for LitHub “on #MeToo in Ethiopia and Eritrea,” Fisseha writes powerfully about what happens when women decide to tell the truth about their own lives: “Perhaps because of my own predisposition to doom and gloom, I had interpreted Rukeyser’s line the world would split open as a disaster scenario. But now I realize how flexible that line is….The world could split open like a flower in bloom, like a woman shattering the glass that had separated her from true connection. Like the global event that became multitudes of habesha women finally telling their stories online…”

The real-life connections to Daughters of Silence do serve to underline the power of story in general, and in this story in particular, but let them not undermine the fact of what a fabulous work of fiction this novel is. The style, remember? The dazzle. Let Rebecca Fisseha take you on a journey. You will be glad you did.

October 8, 2019

Watching You Without Me, by Lynn Coady

I’ve been a big fan of Lynn Coady for awhile now, since I read Mean Boy back in 2006. I absolutely adored her most recent novel, 2011’s The Antagonist, and I really enjoyed puzzling my way through her Giller Award-winning Hellgoing a couple of years later. Hellgoing, a book that, like the trajectory of Coady’s writing career, is packed with twists and turns, a resistance to the boring, conventional or expected. A resistance that continues right up her latest, Watching You Without Me, a thrilling and engrossing ride of a novel, a most unsettling but utterly captivating read.

Her protagonist is Karen, who returns home to Halifax after the death of mother to take care of things, and to sort out the future of her older sister, Kelli, who is developmentally disabled. The moment both Karen and her mother had been resisting for years, especially after an epic battle they’d had decades before when Karen voiced her refusal to be responsible for Kelli’s care and also blamed her mother for having her identity subsumed into that very thing. But the reality of the situation is more complicated than that, as Karen begins to realize as she becomes reacquainted with her sister and the household, whose demands are made somewhat easier with the curious presence of Trevor, her sister’s care-worker, who, it turned out, had come to play an important role in the family’s life while Karen was away.

But Trevor’s presence is also an uneasy and unsettling one. His familiarity makes Karen uncomfortable, she doesn’t really like him, he has “issues,” as they say, control issues in particular, and a propensity for flying off the handle. But Karen is also desperate, and vulnerable in the wake of her mother’s death, and she allows Trevor to continue to make a place for himself in the household, because he’s kind of a master manipulator, but also she needs all the help she can get.

Karen is a fascinating, solitary figure whose more recent history is glossed over, save her a recent divorce, but her lack of friends and confidantes is conspicuous. An elusive narrator, she sees what she wants to see, and does an effective job of shaping the narrative to her purposes, but there are moments when we see through to the story behind the story, and the story behind that, each of these worthy of novels onto themselves, so many questions—the complexity here is wonderful.

Karen’s story reminds me of the narrator of Helen Phillips’ The Need, recently nominated for a National Book Award. Another sinister book about the unrelenting demands of caregiving and how a person might crack underneath them to make some questionable choices. About how one might take whatever relief they’re offered, even if they know it’s a really bad idea, but it’s rather enticing, the opportunity for just a few moments of rest and also the assurance that somebody else, for once, is in control of the chaos.

Claire Tacon’s wonderful 2018 novel, In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo, also similarly explores disability and families, and the experience of being the adult sibling of a person with developmental disabilities, although the siblings’ parents are still alive in Tacon’s novel, and the idea of what happens once they’re gone just looms on the novel’s horizon. Coady’s novel, unflinchingly, takes the reader right there, that moment of the realization of so many parents’ fears for their children, but what is to be most feared actually arrives in the form of a saviour. And the unfolding story of just who Trevor is and what his intentions are results in a roller-coaster ride of a read—which is a remarkable feat when the reader considers that these are characters who barely leave the house.

October 1, 2019

Life Stories

In terms of books, fiction is my default, the first thing I pick up, the books I tend to write about, no matter how interesting I find actual real life people, and the way that nonfictional characters’ stories are often as rich with symbolism and metaphor, and teach me things about the world I never understood before. No matter too the way that I am always interested in memoirs, which means my pile of life stories to be read is embarrassingly high, and one of my reading projects this fall is the absolutely satisfying one of actually reading them. So here’s my start.

Tiny Lights for Travellers, by Naomi K. Lewis: to say that this is a story about a woman who discovers her grandfather’s diary documenting his escape from Nazi Europe and decides to retrace his steps… is far too simple to describe what’s happening in this book. For starters, Lewis is the least likely person to ever end up in a travel memoir. She has self-diagnosed herself with an actual affliction of being directionally-challenged, and she frequently gets lost in her own neighbourhood. She’s also still raw from her recent divorce, and has a complicated relationship with her Jewishness, as did her grandfather who escaped Nazi Europe, for that matter. But she decides to follow her grandfather’s steps anyway, but her real journey is one that’s internal as she navigates her connections to place, religious identity, marriage, secularism, sex, history, baggage (literal and otherwise), family, her own face, and more. It’s a fascinating and illuminating adventure, and a really beautiful book.

*

In My Own Moccasins, by Helen Knott: I had heard wonderful things about Helen Knot’s memoir, In My Own Moccasins, but I must confess that I bought it because it’s a pocket-sized hardback, a gorgeous book you can hold in one hand, and I couldn’t resist it. Good thing too, because the book is as gorgeous inside as out. Knott tells her story, which is one of seeming contradictions. She grew up in a family that was troubled and loving, she emerged as an activist and leader but struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, all of this overshadowed by her family’s history of colonial trauma and her own experiences of sexual assault. The story is told outside of chronology, each section of the book circling toward the central point, which is the violence of colonialism and also the story of resilience, as Knott fights her way out of darkness and claims the cultural heritage that colonialism would have denied her. It’s a harrowing and generous story, rich with wisdom and power.

*

To Speak for the Trees, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger

Reading Ariel Gordon’s Treed last spring changed the way I see the world, and certainly heightened my reverence for trees, so I was excited to read Beresford-Kroeger’s To Speak for the Trees, a memoir by the acclaimed scientist. A memoir that read somewhat incredulously if it were a novel, because surely it couldn’t really happen that way. Beresford-Kroeger born to an English aristocrat and his Irish wife, who become estranged, and then both die, leaving their daughter an orphan. She could very well be sent away to an orphanage, but instead is left in the care of a neglectful uncle, but she’s also adopted by members of her community and schooled in ancient Celtic wisdom. And she basically spends her career as a botanist proving with science all she’d been taught here, plants as cures and tinctures. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also incredibly intelligent with a photographic memory, and in conventional school it soon becomes clear that she’s an extraordinary pupil. Ireland was long ago deforested by the English, to fuel English industry but also to rob the Irish people of the spiritual power that came with the trees, and Beresford-Kroeger does not get to properly experience a forest until she immigrates to Canada, where she has spent her adult life. She writes about the importance of biodiversity, her quest to find and preserve rare trees, and how trees are instrumental in our battle against climate change. A curious and fascinating book.

*

Outside In, by Libby Davies

Libby Davies’ memoir of her career in activism, Vancouver municipal politics, and as a Member of Parliament in Ottawa was just the balm I needed in the midst of an election that, as expected, as turned out to be stupider than stupid. It’s inspiring, so interesting, and points out the opportunities and challenges of politics, and it was just so wonderful to read about someone driven to service, to make the world a better place, instead of seeing politics as a game, as so many others do (and Davies shows this). An activist since her teen years, Davies’ story is rich and the book is absorbing. It made me believe in the possibility of a better world, and renewed a little bit of my faith in the electoral system.

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