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May 18, 2015

The Capacity for Infinite Happiness by Alexis Von Konigslow

the-capacity-for-infinite-happinessI credit this to living downtown, or maybe there are interesting, creative people everywhere, but I have had some incredible fortune meeting other mothers at the library’s baby time. Most recently, Alexis Von Konigslow whose debut novel is The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, a weird, enthralling, and singularly original book. I was drawn to it by its story of a mathematician, because I love books about math and science, which allow me access to these worlds I’m not otherwise privy to. But I wasn’t as sure about the rest of the book’s description—Harpo Marx, who I wouldn’t be able to tell from Karl, and Passover, when I know as much about the Seder as I do about the Marx Brothers. More over, how do you plot a novel whose points are so divergent, against the setting of a Muskoka lodge, no less? But plotting points is what the book is all about, in terms of math and narrative, drawing connections between ideas, and the pattern that emerges is remarkable.

It’s the story of Emily who seeks refuge at her family’s lodge in Muskoka, a near century old Jewish resort, after a devastating revelation from her mother and frustration with her PhD thesis. She has been mapping social networks, showing how math can chart the connections between people, and she wants to apply what she’s learned to her own family and the lodge, but the lines aren’t matching up. She’s having trouble untangling the connections, figuring out who came from where in her family’s complicated network, and what exactly happened years ago when her great-great-grandparents arrived in Canada escaping persecution in Russia. Her confusion isn’t mitigated by her grandmother and great-aunt’s cryptic ways with history and storytelling—Emily’s questions are never properly answered. Was Harpo Marx really once a guest at the lodge? What is the real story of her family in Russia? And what was her great-grandmother’s tragic secret?

Emily’s story takes place in 2003, and is countered with chapters from 1933 when Harpo Marx was indeed a guest at the lodge. These chapters are from Harpo’s point of view, which might explain their oddness, their dreamlike sensibility. Though Emily’s story is pretty strange as well, her character as eccentric as her ancestors’. She and her friend Jonah, who she’s known since childhood and has feelings for, begin to care for a pet lamp called Jazzy. A kookiness that might be characteristic of the Marx Brothers infuses the entire narrative. It is all very odd and slightly skewed, and would be off-putting and fey in the hands of a lesser author, but Von Konigslow is very good. There is something so absorbing about the novel’s crafting, how its two parts start to echo each other, a formula that begins to emerge as to how they are connected, and this is the mystery for which we are reading. This project is large and ambitious, and fascinatingly realized—when I got to the end, I was breathless. It was such a pleasure to read this book, which is unlike any I’ve ever read before.

And now I want to go and watch A Night at the Opera.

May 13, 2015

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better by Monica Heisey

i-cant-believe-its-not-better“A Day in the Life of Pinterest” by Monica Heisey is the most ridiculously funny thing ever, plus it’s in The New Yorker, which is pretty darn impressive, and so it was with admiration that I picked up Heisey’s new book, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better: A Woman’s Guide to Coping With Life. Heisey is a Canadian writer and comedian in her 20s whose column, “The Grown-Ass Woman’s Guide to Life” for the Toronto website, She Does the City, was inspiration for much of her book’s material. Pieces like, “When It’s Time to Switch to Water” (“You Are Considering Peeing Somewhere That Is Not a Bathroom…”)  reminded me a lot of being in my 20s, accompanied by “How to Be a Good Roommate” (good tip: “Do Not Leave a Used Pad in a Container of Half-Eaten Poutine…”), and “Working From Home: How to Do It”. Heist’s advice is either markedly sensible (“Some Notes on Etiquette for the Behaviourally Disenfranchised”: “No one thinks your opinion represent those of your employer, so you can probably relax about this”) or tongue-in-cheek, using humour (“What to Wear to Barf at 30,000 Feet”) to satirize a society that positions women as helpless and idiotic, and seems to like us this way. With pieces like, “Good Mistakes Vs. Bad Mistakes: A Fuck Up’s Guide,” Heisey’s book is less a guide to coping than a manifesto to muck through, eat burritos and figure it all out in your own damn time.

But there are quizzes. I am a bit too old for Heisey’s book (I am only 35, but her bits on “aging” made me want to say, “Bless…”) but the quizzes took me right back to *my* YM days. When I was ostensibly reading to figure out what kind of person I was (ABC, or D), when the reality was that I wasn’t formed yet, but I knew who I wanted to be, and skewed my answers to get the desired result—which was usually D. Which is to say that we were figuring it out in our own damn time even then, we already know the answers but sometimes it’s just nice to have some affirmation. (Heisey’s quizzes include, “Should You Text Them Back?,” “Should You Eat That?”—all answers point to YES—, and “Which Of The Terrible Fashion Mistakes of My Past Are You?”  [“You are my sixteen-year-old self’s attempt at ‘boho-chic’…”].)

There is a tendency among the kind-hearted people of the internet to label anything that’s not a list an essay, which is a little bit misleading (and mortifying when I dash off a blog post, and someone shares it with a reference to the e-word). Most of these pieces are too breezy to be essays exactly, which is not to say that they’re less than, but they lack the depth and precision I expect from a really good essay. The book also suffers a bit in comparison with Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl (several pieces of which really were essays, as I wrote in my review), similarly structured with lists and doodles. If you hated Dunham’s book, you won’t like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better, though if you liked it, probably add this one to your list.  And while there can never be too many women telling other women that they don’t need to wear uncomfortable underwear in order to get laid, “Some Gentle Advice on Underwear” was reminiscent of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (a book whose spirit infuses Heisey’s ethos).

Which is not to say that Heisey doesn’t do her own thing. In fact, she’s her very best when she’s doing her own thing. My favourite pieces in the book were removed from the advice-giving—I laughed out loud on the subway reading “Diary of a Bra,” “On Splitting the Bill and Other Nightmares” is indeed a modern day horror story, the Pinterest piece is so absolutely perfect and smart and hilarious, and also, “How to Make Your Apartment Look Like You Read Design Blogs.” Even if some bits of the book are derivative, they still go massively against the grain of what society is telling women all the time, so it’s not like we’re being saturated by these messages after all. And it’s not like it isn’t incredibly brave still for a woman to stand up and be funny, gutsy, and smart (and vulnerable) in public. Not to mention an inspiration.

So, more of this please. As Heisey writes, “Women speaking to women about being a woman remains one of the best parts of being alive and one of the most important things you can do. Do it often.”

May 12, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

a-god-in-ruinsI’m such an admirer of omniscience, though I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. There are readers for whom omniscience pulls them out of the story, exposing the limits of the fictional universe—that all this is artifice after all—but those very same limits, to me, are the very indicators that there is a fictional universe. It’s the point of reading a book, a whole imagined world to be revealed, and Kate Atkinson is a master at commanding its reins. From her very first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which begins with Ruby Lennox’s conception: “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall…”—Atkinson has been part of a grand tradition of English writers (Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, etc.) pushing the bounds of narrative to discover just what a novel can hold and the multitudinous ways a story can be told.

Her last novel, Life After Lifewas unabashed in its experimentation. What if, it supposed, a person could go back in her life, over and over again, and have the chance to do over what went wrong before? This was the story of Ursula Todd whose preternatural tendency toward expiration is matched only by her ability to be reborn (“I exist!”) over and over. Her story spans the first half of the twentieth century, encompassing world wars and radical social change. The metaphysical elements of the novel are never clearly delineated—Ursula sort of understands her situation but Atkinson provides no reason for her ability to be reborn and go back in time over and over again. Life After Life is a novel far more concerned with What If? than Why?—to what extent is there predestiny, can we control our fates, what are unintended consequences of that control? Can practice make perfect? What I found remarkable about Life After Life is that Atkinson uses her life-after-life device not just to play tricks, but to build characters too and and develop plot, and how this book of starts comes together to be something altogether whole.

(I am incapable of real criticism of Kate Atkinson. I am simply in awe of her work. But I also thought that Rohan Maitzen’s critical review of Life After Life was excellent, and adds even more texture to a very substantial novel.)

Atkinson’s new novel, A God in Ruins, is not a sequel to Life After Life, she explains in her afterword, but “a companion novel.” It’s the life story of Ursula’s brother Teddy in a version of their family’s life that is slightly different than those portrayed in the first novel. Where Ursula died over and over again, Teddy shows a predilection toward survival, miraculously making it through a career as a WW2 bomber pilot. And it is the war upon which his story hinges—an experience both makes him and destroys him. An experiences that does not become less raw as the war itself fades into history, though those around put it away in the past. “You can only go forward,” is a line delivered again and again in the text, a winky joke at the premise of Life After Life, but also blatantly wrong in the matter of narrative because an author is free to put her story together anyway she likes—forward, backward, and round and round in circles. Posing the questions: what if history never entirely goes away? how does it change as we carry it with us? And how is a conventional existence not unlike Ursula’s in reality: “It felt as if he had lived many lifetimes,” Teddy remembers at one point, and who has not felt this way? What is the cumulation of these lives, these selves? What is the thing that connects them?

The reader follows Teddy through his many lives, which are all lived in the same life—through the trauma of his war experiences (whose violence is unflinching but matter-of-fact), the happy early years of his marriage, his tumultuous relationship with his daughter, Viola, and the injustices she inflicts upon her own children, whom Teddy becomes responsible for. As with Life After Life, there is repetition, details slightly changed, conflicting accounts—reading the novel through a similar metaphysical lens as the previous novel is an illuminating experience. And at the end of the story, Atkinson shows her hand with a twist that shall not be revealed, but it’s wonderful and gut-punching, and demonstrates that we’re in the hand of a master writer. As if you ever had any doubts…

May 4, 2015

Mad Miss Mimic by Sarah Henstra

mad-miss-mimicI’ve spent the last couple of days enjoying Mad Miss Mimic, the first novel by my friend, Sarah Henstra. It’s not normally a book I would have sought out—it’s published under a YA imprint, and historical fiction—but then there’s that cover, plus I so admire Sarah’s work and intellect. She’s an English Professor at Ryerson University where she teaches courses in Gothic Horror and Fairy Tales and Fantasy, and way back, years before we met again socially, she was my TA for the Literature in Our Time course at UofT, and I never forgot her—not something I can say about most of TAs from nearly 20 years ago.

So I was confident that the book would be smart, and once again the arbitrariness of genre and marketing distinctions are made to me, because I delighted in Mad Miss Mimic. The novel takes place in London during the 1870s, a young woman endowed with good looks and great wealth and she’d be considered a match for any worth gentleman, save the matter of her debilitating stutter and her tendency to compulsively take on the inflection and tones of others’ speech and parrot it back at inopportune moments. But has Leonora finally met her match with Francis Thornfax, a colleague of her brother-in-law who is not unnerved by her outbursts? Alas, she is too smart to be completely won over by his affections, and can’t help noticing shady dealings going on between Thornfax and her brother-in-law, a doctor, whose charity patients keep dropping dead, and there is the matter of her sister’s reliance on laudanum, all this against the backdrop of a series of bombings whose credit is claimed by the Black Glove Gang, acts of terror in protest of the government’s proposed opium ban—which would serve to put a stop to Thornfax’s import business.

Leonora’s affliction (which is imaginary) causes her to be literally silenced in her efforts to hide it, and therefore not so different from most women of her time who were powerless and without a voice In moments of crisis, however, Mad Miss Mimic (the name given behind Leonora’s back to the force which causes strange voices to emerge from her lips) turns out to be a source of strength instead of trouble, and perhaps she is closer to Leonora’s true self that she even realizes—or maybe Mimic needs only needs to be claimed. And all of this is a bit ambiguous, mysterious, and interesting enough to add real depth to the novel, discussed on a symbolic level. Leonora is skirty and she and her talents remain slightly unknowable to her reader, these loose ends worthy of further reflection, all the while a love plot is resolved in a way that is wholly satisfying.

Mad Miss Mimic put me in mind of other books I enjoyed last year: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton in its vivid historical depiction and Jo Walton’s Small Change series too for its conspiracy theories and bomb plots. For readers who enjoyed these books, Sarah Henstra’s debut novel would be a great suggestion for what to read next.

April 27, 2015

Welcome to the Circus, by Rhonda Douglas

welcome-to-the-circusRhonda Douglas doesn’t miss a beat in her fiction debut, the short story collection, Welcome to the Circus. It’s a collection to be admired right down to its basic components—the sentences. “…our three hearts open and close like the mouths of tiny birds,” in “Nous and René Lévesque.” Later in the same story, “The future seems to yawn open, becomes something far less certain, all of plans swinging on their hinges.” In “Humanitarian Relief,” “Henry Jeans amasses flesh about his bones with the single-minded focus of a NASCAR driver eating up track.” Ten stories, each one based around a tantalizing premise: a fresh take on Two Solitudes and adolescence, inspired by a high school core-French teacher in rural Newfoundland; a story of three veteran humanitarian aid workers in a Kenyan refugee camp; a series of letters to one’s eighth grade self; a collection of documents based on the case of executed dancer and spy, Mata Hari, curated by a man whose father may have been among her paramours; “Still Life With Book” about a teenage boy who partakes to carve the works of John Donne into his flesh, inspiring his therapist to reinvigorate his sex life. In “Sounds of our Paleolithic Past,” a curator at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta mixes business with pleasure as she develops a complex relationship with a Neandertal discovered in the badlands; in the next story, a daughter considers her legacy working in the family porn business as she faces threats of violence and estrangement from her sister; in “Welcome to the Circus, Sooky Baby,” a grieving teenage girl finds solace in surprising places—including the company of an elephant; and finally, “Cancer Oratorio,” structured as a series of choral/orchestral movements from the collective perspective of a choir facing the loss of a member from cancer. But not before “God Explains the Collapse of the Cod Fishery,” which I’d previously loved in The New Quarterly, a sad and beautiful story of wonder and violence which does exactly what the title says, and contains this stunning passage:

“Sunrise is a ritual for beginnings, for re-creating, for starting over, for once more and this time with emphasis people! We all need renewal, or at least I do, and so I’ve worked a few details in here and there: bean sprouts, infants for all species, sincere apologies, and so on. Sure, there are design flaws, but sunrise isn’t one of them.”

If these stories weren’t so wondrously crafted, we’d probably say they were “quirky”, but as it is, they impress the reader with being so convincingly real, of this world, even when their premises are far outside of it. And it is this solidity too that holds together a collection of such different styles of stories, so that even if the reader never knows what she’ll encounter around the next page, she knows it’s going to be excellent. These are bright and shiny stories with an edge, like a knife-blade, in the manner of Zsuzsi Gartner, whom many of them put me in mind of—which is high praise. This is a fabulous, enthralling, exuberant book, and I think you should read it.

April 8, 2015

Born to Walk by Dan Rubinstein

born-to-walkI thought I’d already read the book on walking. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, a book that opened my eyes to the wonders of rambling and tramping, and to how amazing is the ordinary world around us all the time. How extraordinary is the act of a single step, let alone one after another.

However extraordinary though, we are talking about walking. After Wanderlust, what else needs to be said? So I wasn’t entirely sold on Dan Rubinstein’s Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act—not at least until I opened the book. I saw that Rebecca Solnit was his epigraph (“Perhaps walking is best imagined as an ‘indicator species’ to use an ecologist’s term…”). And realized that the journey, delightfully, continues on.

Whereas Solnit’s book was a history of walking, Rubinstein spreads his net wide and attempts to capture walking right now. What does it mean? How is walking changing lives and places? The book is divided into eight sections—Body, Mind, Society, Economy, Politics, Creativity, Spirit and Family—each one inspired by a central walking narrative with plenty of room for diversions. Rubsinstein, an award-winning journalist, blends memoir, sociology, psychology, cultural commentary and reporting to show how walking connects us to our fundamental selves and also to the natural world.

In “Body”, he journeys with a team led by Dr. Stanley Vollant, an Innu surgeon whose days-long hikes through the remote wilderness reconnects First Nations people with the lives their ancestors led before communities in Northern Canada became settled, hikes that are tests of physical and spiritual strength. (Aside: a quietly groundbreaking study published in 1953 asserting that “regular physical exercise could be one of the ‘ways of life’ that promote health.” More asides: modern labs which study how and why people fall, attempting to create safer stairs—”In Canada, the social and health-care cost of accidents on stairs alone is estimated at $8.8 billion a year.” An exoskeleton that enables paralyzed people to walk. So many asides: this is a text rich and enlivened by desire lines…)

In “Mind,” Rubinstein considers “The Glasgow Effect”—Glasgow has the lowest life expectancy in Western Europe, increased circumstances of psychiatric disorders—and examines programs to counter this effect including neighbourhood walks and connecting people with natural places. This chapter also uses examples of war veterans with PTSD, and the effect of hikes upon their wellbeing. In “Society,” Rubinstein travels the streets of Philadelphia with Police Officers on foot patrol, invokes Jane Jacobs, and demonstrates how different one’s experience of a city is when lived through a car window, or as part of the sidewalk ballet.

wanderlustMy adoration for Born to Walk was cemented with the chapter on “Economy,” which begins with a Canada Post letter carrier making her rounds in Ottawa. What do these kind of individuals offer Jacobs’ sidewalk ballet? And are people who walk for a living happier and healthier than the rest of us? Canada Post is phasing out home delivery, although they made a profit last year and their parcel delivery service is robust due to online retailers such as Amazon. Amazon, not yet fully automated—pickers at their warehouses walk 7 to 15 miles a day, Rubinstein tells us, shifting then to ask what a lack of walking costs us economically, what might be gained by created walking and cycling infrastructure. And what about the possibilities of walking and business? He addresses the walk-around management style, and the idea of walking-meetings.  He also interviews two owners of a small dog-walking business. “It pays well and it’s only a half day, so I can also work on other things that I’m interested in… And yeah, the walking. That’s probably the best part.”

In “Politics,” Rubinstein walks with Rory Stewart, a British MP who got to know his constituents by hiking around Northwestern England, going door to door, the same way he’d got to know Afghanistan in 2002, after leaving behind his job in the Foreign Service. (His journeys through Afghanistan culminated in his book, The Places in Between.) The chapter invokes Thoreau, Gandhi, marches on Washington for woman’s suffrage and for civil rights, and First Nations walks in protest in Canada.

In “Creativity,” he takes part in walking as performance art in Brooklyn, considers artists for whom walking as served as muse or medium, and learns about the role of walking in creative cognition. In “Spirit,” he partakes in a hike through Wales, and writes about famous pilgrimages including El Camino in Spain, the Hajj in Mecca and the Kumbh Mela in northern India. He writes about what it means to finish a pilgrimage…and what it means to quit. And the final chapter is “Family,” in which he writes about walking to school with his children—particularly after they were mowed down by an SUV (and it’s always an SUV, isn’t it?) at their local crosswalk. What can we do to make streets safer for children to walk to school, for everyone to walk safely? He cites surprising benefits to walking to school—not just time for conversation and physical fitness, but studies showing that children who walk to school are more deeply connected to their communities geographically and psychologically. And he writes about walking with his children, hikes through nature—how this has always been part of their experience as a family. What it gives them: time, the moment, right now.

the-silver-button

And that’s the thing about walking—these vast ramifications, but it often comes down to a little hand in yours, always ordinary until it comes to a tiny person’s miraculous first step.

In our family, we don’t have a car, and so the decision to walk to school isn’t one we ever have to think about. A few times a year, they have a “Walk to School Day” at the school, and we think this is funny, the same way I thought it was funny when someone declared 2014 the year to read women writers. Last year when I wrote about the Rebecca Solnit book (and its companion—the picture book The Silver Button by Bob Graham), Harriet was only 4 and finding the walk to school a bit of a struggle, whereas her legs are longer now and she’s used to it—particularly when she’s unencumbered by snow pants, the walk is not a slog at all. “I was born to walk,” she told me this morning, because she is impressionable, and can read book jackets now, and I’ve been talking a lot about this one. It’s a book whose connections to the world are so multitudinous that you keep putting it down as you’re reading to share something fascinating, and then when the book is done, you go out walking down the street, and the connections all come back to the other way.

Iris, who is not quite 2, is a different creature than her sister was, bipedally speaking. She wants to walk everywhere, shouting “Walkie! Walkie!” if we dare constrain her in her stroller, and she doesn’t just want to walk—she does walk. Last Tuesday, she walked down Bloor Street from Spadina to Bay. It’s her favourite thing in the world—she seems to know everything in Rubinstein’s book innately—to be motoring on her own steam, and so completely free.

April 5, 2015

Circle of Stones by Suzanne Alyssa Andrew

circle of stonesSuzanne Alyssa Andrew’s Circle of Stones is a novel in fragments, the story passed like a baton from one character to another, each one adding something essential to the overarching plot in addition to the peculiarity of their own perspective. It’s a tenuous arrangement, but it holds because of the solidness of Andrew’s prose, the rootedness of her characters, and her deftness at creating mystery and suspense by arranging the puzzle pieces of her novel just so.

The overarching plot involves a pair of star-crossed lovers. Nik, a talented art student, is drawn to the enigmatic Jennifer, painting her features over and over in order to hold her in a way he knows he never can. Though he tries. When she disappears from his apartment in Vancouver, taking her dance bag but nothing else, leaving her cell-phone behind, he decides to go after her, against everybody’s advice—except for his grandmother, who’d urged him to be the one good man in their family and take care of the people he cares about. But Nik’s good intentions are thwarted by a violent thug who also appears to be on Jennifer’s trail. He quickly loses control of the plot altogether.

The plot is then taken up by Nik’s former roommate months later in Toronto, trying to sort out the broken pieces of his life (and here, Andrew underlines that the spaces between us are what connect us after all). Aaron has RCMP officers appearing on his doorstep asking questions about Nik, plus he’s struck by a meeting with his English professor, an annotated copy of The English Patient. Next up is the Prof herself, distracted by updates from her estranged sister about their dying mother. And then the story is taken up by a Nurse at the dying mother’s long-term care, Tina preoccupied by her Lhia, troubled teenage daughter, and something strange going on amidst the staff at work. The following chapter is from Lhia’s perspective as she negotiates her independence and sense of self as she goes into the world. On the streets of Ottawa, she meets up with Nik, who’s been on the run for awhile. And we’ve been catching glimpses of him and Jennifer in the periphery of the previous chapters, and have been able to piece together their separate trajectories, filling in the blanks.

Next is George, teenage Lhia’s uncle, a gay civil servant trying to live the good life on contract, trying to keep ahead of the place he came from but living paycheque to paycheque (when the paycheques even arrive). And then his friend, Lucy, whose story I’d read years ago as “Extreme Ironing” in Taddle Creek magazine. Suffering through grief at the death of her mother, determined to fill in the gap of her loss by taking care of her father, having his shirts sent across the country so she can iron them (on the Montreal subway no less, a guerrilla manoeuvre). I will admit that by the time we get to Tim, Lucy’s brother, a documentary filmmaker, the story seems to have circled a bit too beyond its point of origin, so it’s with relief that we find, in the following chapter, the circle narrowing again.

While the Nik and Jennifer storyline is what ties the pieces of the story together, for me they weren’t the most interesting part of the novel. They were always just a little bit too outside the frame (even intentionally so), their characters airily constructed. Some of this is deliberate—there is a scene in which Jennifer lights match after match, a vision only in the most fleeting light. But they were both a bit too ethereal to be true, whereas the other characters carrying the novel are startlingly realized in vivid, stark lines. To the point where the reader is overwhelmed, amazed that all these people—teenagers to octogenarians, men and women, gay and straight, parents, widows, the lonely and loved—have all been born from just one writer’s pen. And that there is nothing facile about what connects them—this kind of network is a simulacrum of the world.

Full disclosure requires that I note that Suzanne is a friend of mine, which only means that I was particularly pleased to like her novel so much. And it’s a demonstration of her talent that such a diversity of voices, experiences and points of view are so convincingly depicted, and that they are hung together, with mystery and intrigue, as something so remarkably whole.

March 31, 2015

The Big Swim by Carrie Saxifrage

big-swimBooks come from trees, and I’ve got this theory they never entirely shake their wild origins. I think this every time I’m reading outside in the spring and blossoms rain down on my book’s pages, or when a tiny midge appears and sits down at the end of a sentence. The poetry book Decomp by Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott was created from what remained of copies of Origin of Species that had been left in five distinct ecosystems to decay for a year, and I love that idea: of books and reading being so firmly embedded in nature, like they belong there. And in her extraordinary book of essays, The Big Swim, Carrie Saxifrage underlines this point, with references to literary pumpkins (Linus’s, Cinderella’s, and Peter Pumpkin Eater’s wife’s) in her essay on growing a 300 lb. squash; by recounting her grand awakening to the perils of climate change that came with reading—a series of articles by Elizabeth Kolbert; by explaining that she writes about climate change because it’s the one thing that relieves her heartbreak about understanding what we’re doing to our planet; and finally by making the natural world come alive for her reader, capturing the wonderfulness and wondrousness of nature in sparking, evocative prose.

The next best thing to a tree for a tree to be, I’d say, would be any single page in this extraordinary book.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring meets Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek meets Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, with a healthy dose of Barbara Kingsolver—perhaps Animal Vegetable Miracle, a book that woke me up to the wonders of eating by the season, local food movements, and that potato have greens—who knew? In 12 absorbing, funny, and thoughtful essays, Carrie Saxifrage connects the personal with the universal and the scientific to the spiritual to celebrate her love for the world and confront her anxiety about its fate.

It’s a perfect book for spring, I think. Partly because bunnies turn up twice. The first time in “Hare,” when Saxifrage writes about tensions between “tree-huggers and rednecks” on her home of Cortes Island, BC. A friend whose family has ties to the local logging industry dares to bridge the gap between the two groups, but it all gets very complicated. (There is a blockade at one point, and Saxifrage offers muffins to everyone on sides, and I do so like that she appreciates the value of the muffin as a political tool.) A long story and good intentions lead to Saxifrage dressing up as “The Easter Hare” (not the bunny, no, this is the pagan symbol for springtime fertility) for the Volunteer Firefighter’s Easter Brunch, but things go wrong as best intentions always do, and our heroine ends up locked in a bathroom with terrifying children threatening to break down the door. In the end, Saxifrage resolves to get on side with her friend’s family by “non-controversial public service” in the future. Hopefully there still can be muffins.

In “Lagomorphic Resonance,” Saxifrage is hiking alone in Washington State, the same places she’d visited years before with a friend who’d later died: “It still felt like some remnant of Paul and me, as we had been, remained in the place itself.” And she’s there to see the pikas, mouselike creatures who are cousins of rabbits and live high up on mountains, who “seem like one of the many improbable details of the world’s enormous diversity.” The essay is partly about rumours of the pika’s endangerment, threats to its habitat by rising temperatures due to climate change, partly about her anxiety as mother of a teenager (and this anxiety hangs over a lot of the text in a really interesting way), about loss and memory, and the tremendous glory of being alone in quiet places.

The essays aren’t so much about what they’re about as they’re about narrative, and so many facts, anecdotes, sidelines adding layers of meaning to the reading experience. In the title essay, Saxifrage swims five miles in the cold ocean between Cortes Island and Quadra Island, capturing the unsexy details of such an endeavour (her entire body covered in lanolin to protect against the cold) and the thrilling ones, about the pleasures of swimming and its movements, of immersion, the challenges of endurance. It’s one of the best bits of swim-lit I’ve ever read: “Romantically speaking, I’m part ocean mammal. I spend time thinking about how real mermaids would actually swim… I’m strongly related to the marine branch of the family tree.” And why does she she partake in the splendid agony of these five mile swims? Because they permit her to “belong…to a vast, cold world where brilliant seaweed banners wave in exultation.”

(So yes, my love of this book also isn’t just because of what the essays are about, but because of how the writing is so incredibly good.)

In “Pumpkin People,” Saxifrage attempts to make her way into the community on Cortes Island where she has arrived as a homesteader (and one who was previously an American lawyer, no less…) by participating in the annual ritual of growing outsized gourds; in “Hail Mary, Shining Sea” she is awakened to the reality of climate change and its threats to the planet, this idea mingling with notions of “goodness”; pursuing a low-carbon lifestyle, she and her husband eventually stop flying, and so it’s by Greyhound bus that she makes her way to Mexico for adventure and Spanish lessons and to be part of a shining sea in a metaphoric way. “Deep Blueberry Gestalt” is Saxifrage hiking through Vancouver’s Strathcona Park alone while reading Arne Naess’s ideas about “possibilism”: “that we must decisively come up with our view of life and find meaning in it, yet remember that more things are possible than we can imagine.”

In “The Oolichan and the Snake,” she attempts to understand First Nations opposition to the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline by taking the Greyhound for 20 hours to Kitimat in Northern BC to listen to First Nation testimony. “A lot of people don’t understand how industrious our people really were,” explains Gerald Amos, an elder of the Haisla Nation. “On this river alone, we estimate that our people harvested 600 tonnes of oolichan in the springtime. This went on for untold generations. We’ve made our living here for thousands and thousands of years without destroying it.”

“Nectar” is a beautiful story of Saxifrage’s mother’s final days, and contains one of the loveliest lines I’ve ever read: “Maybe when you love someone…you are preparing for a moment you don’t even realize will come.” “Falling into Place” is about a confluence of her mother’s death with the discovery of an ancient human jawbone on their property. “Journey to Numen Land” I loved because Saxifrage decides that sleeping a lot is radical, and she attempts to draw connections between her sleeping and waking life to fascinating ends. She returns to the water in “River Creatures,” rafting through the Grand Canyon and swimming (of course!) part way, making connections between her mother, the fossilized creatures in the canyon walls and river guides who’d gone before her: “None of them got to preserve for all time what they loved, or even completely determine their own course. Like me, they had the opportunity to study the rapids, choose their path, and find joy in the river’s firm embrace.”

March 25, 2015

A Year of Days by Myrl Coulter

a-year-of-daysThe title and premise of Myrl Coulter’s essay collection, A Year of Days, bring to mind the quote by Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” But considering its inverse, Coulter’s essays examining the shapes of our lives by the days a life comprises, the singular days upon which time hangs its hat, and that become our markers from year to year to year. February, birthdays, the August long weekend, Thanksgiving, Halloween. In a life forever changing, it’s these days that are ever constant, to be counted on, and the seasons too, cycles returning every year, and it’s only you who has become so different. Our connections to these days are visceral—sometimes in anticipation, or anxiety, or happiness, or grief. And it’s this viscerality (a word she coins) as well as the days themselves that are points of departure for the essays in this book. New Years Day, for the first essay, a calm day, the chance to start again. All the while she’s mourning the death of her mother, irrevocably lost.

“As soon as she was gone from this earth, I felt an overwhelming need for more of her. I had to find her again. But how do you find someone after they’re gone for good? That’s where viscerality comes in handy. My viscerality took me on a trek into the years my mother and I had spent on the planet, both together and apart.”

Like many of my favourite essay collections though, the thematic here link is tangential. Even the essays themselves embark upon wild twists and diversions. Coulter’s essays fit Susan Olding’s definition of the genre, in which she writes, “Partaking of the story, the poem, and the philosophical investigation in equal measure, the essay unsettles our accustomed ideas and takes us places we hadn’t expected to go… We start out learning about embroidery stitches and pages later find ourselves knee-deep in somebody’s grave.” And with the book as a whole, you start out expecting a book that’s a kind of calendar, only to find that Myrl Coulter has cast her net so very wide.

And what has she captured? The magnificent frigate bird swooping over the sea, seen from the hotel where Coulter partakes in a Mexican sojourn. How does one capture a sunset? Winter as an analogy for her mother’s dementia, casting their family into a season of darkness. An essay on Valentines, and hearts real and metaphoric, and perforated hearts, and the difficulty of cutting while left-handed with right-handed scissors. On Easter, and Easter Island, and Easter Bunnies, and the lies we tell our children for the sake of magic. I love this essay’s ending: “Nostalgia lives in the impossible notion that we can start again… I suppose that makes nostalgia a little like repentance.”

I loved the essay, “Gym Interrupted, Again,” in which Coulter contemplates the work-out clothing she’s acquired over decades, considering her high school PE uniforms, ’80s aerobic sweatbands, expensive running shoes, bagging jogging pants, running tights, and all the changing fashions of fitness and its attire, and the body, the one constant (though in itself, ever changing). “But one relationship we have that isn’t interrupted, at least until the day it ends forever, is the one we have with our bodies. They are the houses we live in.”

She writes about her discomfort with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, built on idealized notions that often please no one. About the May long weekend, and her surprise that golfing has become part of her life, articulating what she loves about the sport in a way I found fascinating. “Lakes I Have Known” is summer and swimming and floating free. “Cornocopia Soup,” sort of about Thanksgiving, but essentially a recipe for making Chicken Soup over two days, about loneliness and soup-making as therapy, and it made me so hungry. “Survival Gear,” which riffs on Halloween and costumes, and our selves as costumed beings, and ends with, “Words and pictures—survival gear for our stories.”

“Wearing Black” on funerals and mourning, and the surprising “Music on the Hill” about the ins-and-outs of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, and its peculiar and particular rituals recurring year after year, and she writes about these experiences while numbed by grief, after her mother’s death, of “my distraction year” when “my inner music stopped.” The collection ends with the weird and wonderful “Current Crossings” about Edmonton’s High Level Bridge and its various modes of crossing. Back and forth, back and forth, the traffic flowing like time is, and bridges are metaphors for so many things—for the possibility of connection, for how here we are between one thing and another, or the bridge itself as a year and every journey across it is so very different.

If Myrl Coulter’s name sounds familiar, it may be because she was a contributor to The M Word, her essay actually an excerpt from her phenomenal book, The House With the Broken Two. While Coulter’s complex relationship with her mother is an important aspect of her memoir, it’s considered more obliquely here. A Year of Days is not so much a book about grief as a book that’s haunted by Coulter’s mother’s spirit. As the whole world might seem to be after a loss, I’d suppose, the collection creating some order from the pieces that are left.

March 17, 2015

After Birth by Elisa Albert

after-birth1.

No, listen, she says, the problem is no one cares about babies. I mean, they care about babies like “oh look at the cute baby” or “oh, ha ha, funny looking baby with an old man voice-over,” but no one actually cares about babies. I mean the details, it’s boring.

So let’s imagine that the ideas this book is concerned with do not matter. Let’s discuss it as a piece of literature, divorced from its subject(s). Elisa Albert’s third novel, After Birth, is an angry, passionate, gnarly and perfect mess of a novel that echoes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper in style and tone (and exclamation marks!), and also Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and more recently Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs for the force of its rage. Its narrator, Ari, at one point references her favourite Grace Paley story (“Wants”). Which is to say that this is a novel constructed on a strong literary tradition. Its short clipped sentences are notes and dispatches from a place of confusion, attempts to reconcile life itself with one’s expectations of it, and other realities including people’s Facebook profiles and feminist theory. The notes and dispatches do not comprise a plot so much as a circling round of a fact, a record of a winter of inertia. So what moves the book forward then? Well, voice, first—Ari’s is distinct, disturbing, unnerving, frustrating, funny and smart. Second is her vision of the world, which is peculiar and her remarkable articulation of it. And third is curiosity—something’s gotta give. Will she be broken? Will her rage be quashed? And are these two questions actually one and the same? Albert’s first-person address is so solid, so realized, that it gives the impression of having been carved out of something larger, chiseled, rather than built up from the ground. Nothing is incidental or extraneous in her prose. The book and its narrator are exhausting to encounter, frustrating, untameable, and brilliant.

2.

No, listen, though, the problem is with books, with novels about motherhood. Or even worse, those novels that purport to finally pull back the veil and “tell the truth about motherhood.” The problem, in addition to the fact that nobody cares about babies, is that a book about motherhood is rarely read (if it is read at all) as a book about a mother. Instead, it’s a manifesto. Read as a statement on an institution instead of a literary work about a fictional character. A story. We have a hard time grasping that there can be more than one story about motherhood, or if there is more than one, there’s just two then, always diametrically opposed. Two gals facing down on the cover of a magazine. One is always carrying a briefcase. When in reality, there are so many stories, and each of those stories comprise so many stories in themselves, the same way that a single day can hold more than one kind of weather.

“The buildings are amazing in this shitbox town,” is the first line of After Birth, which isn’t nuanced, but it kind of is. And readers and reviewers rarely know what to do with that.

3.

No listen, the problem is that there are the early days of motherhood, and then there is what happens a while after that, when you’ve finally got it figured out, and you feel obligated to go out and deliver everybody else from the darkness. This was the point at which I sent my cousin a completely revised version of her baby registry, when I would start to hyperventilate at the idea of a friend choosing not to co-sleep, when I wanted to chase desperate looking women down who were pushing strollers down the street and put my arms around them, promise them everything was going to be okay. Which was surely the last thing these sorry people needed. And some of them weren’t even sorry. It took me a long time to understand that.

“In the cafe where I never work on my dissertation is the woman I’ve seen at the co-op with her brand-new baby. We smile./ Do you ever feel like you’re completely losing your mind?/ Her smile fades./ It’s okay if you do. It’s perfectly normal.”

4.

No, listen, the problem is women. How we look at other women as mirrors, desperate for affirmation. But it’s always slightly unnerving to look in a mirror, and the reflection is inevitably backwards. Albert’s novel references a 1990s third-wave feminist utopia, Ani DiFranco. Dar Williams singing, “I will not be afraid of women.” But even when we’re not afraid, women are not always good to each other. Like people in general, women are like that. Perhaps more so because of the way in which we’re set up for failure in our engagement, taught to see others as opponents. Ari’s stepmother is an evil feminine archetype, her cousin becomes Bridezilla, and she herself occupied a nasty role as “the other woman” before she married her husband (though she’s not self-aware enough to interrogate this idea. Or is too much so.) She documents her history with female roommates at university, at a private girls high school, at Jewish summer camp, with not one but two moms’ groups. Women are ever disappointing.

Women are ever disappointing for a variety of reasons, both women in the book and women in the world, but part of the problem is that we’re forever looking for that mirror, for affirmation.

Do you ever feel like you’re completely losing your mind?/ Her smile fades./ It’s okay if you do. It’s perfectly normal.”

“I’m v happy to see women engaging and disagreeing. Most necessary. Interrogation is essential,” wrote my friend Anakana Schofield in a tweet last week, in response to Jessa Crispin on Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams and being tired of female pain (and I’d noted that Jamison was tired of people who were tired of it.)

I think that this is a very good point. We need to know how to look at other women without looking for our own reflection. We need to learn to disagree and not end up shattering glass.

5.

“Two hundred years ago—hell, one hundred years ago—you’d have a child surrounded by other women: your mother, her mother, sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law, mother-in-law. And you’d be a teenager too, too young to have had any kind of life yourself. You’d share childcare with a raft of women. They’d help you, keep you company, show you how.”

No, listen, the problem is we have no rafts of women. With After Birth, as with so many other books about mothers, the problem is not motherhood itself, but instead a motherhood that puts a woman apart from the world, both in practical terms (Ari is removed from familiar surroundings in a new town, isolated while her husband is oblivious and busy with his work) and theoretical ones (remember? No one cares about babies. Ari’s concerns are nobody else’s, her’s alone). Her own mother is dead (and Ari’s memories of her are rife with anger at her mother’s anger—interestingly, it doesn’t seem to occur to her to wonder what her mother was so angry about) and she has no sister. She’s estranged from her Aunt, and her from her heritage (it seems) but marrying a man who isn’t Jewish.

“Here’s the problem: we are taught nothing. / How to sew, grow food, preserve food, build things, fix things, make fires, birth babies, care for babies, feed babies, move through time, grow old, die, grieve, change, sit still, be quiet.”

Here’s another problem though: was there ever really a raft of women?

Two hundred years ago, I thought as I read this, you probably would have died.

Moreover, while Ari craves the idea of this raft of women, she has spent much of her own life setting herself adrift from any semblance of one. She doesn’t wish to be anything like her own mother, or be the same kind of mother. She sees her baby as the chance for a fresh start. She wants a natural birth, to breastfeed, to eschew all things toxic and synthetic—her mothering to be nothing like the way her own generation was mothered. She wants a link that’s wholly illusory.

on-immunity6.

After Birth is a fascinating companion to Eula Biss’s On Immunity. I couldn’t help but wonder what Ari would have done had she met a woman like Biss in one of her moms’ groups, a woman who in her book thanks the mothers with whom she’d shared the conversations and preoccupations of early motherhood: “These mothers helped me understand how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are… I am writing to and from the women who complicated the matter of immunization for me…In a culture that relishes pitting women against each other in ‘mommy wars,’ I feel compelled to leave some traces on the page of another kind of argument. This is a productive, necessary argument—an argument that does not reduce us, as the diminutive mommy implies, and does not resemble war.”

Albert too demonstrates how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are. This isn’t really a book “about” motherhood at all, but instead, motherhood is its starting point.

Like many of the women in Biss’s book, Ari feels, and indeed has been, failed by the medical establishment. Her unhappiness in motherhood she puts down to the trauma of her c-section. When her friend acknowledges the experience as a kind of rape, Ari feels gratified for just a moment. And perhaps this is the link to her maternal lineage, Ari’s own particular raft of women: her own mother died from cancer caused by drugs her grandmother had taken in pregnancy to avert miscarriage. Those same drugs had left her mother with mutilated reproductive organs so that Ari herself was only conceived and born by remarkable chance. The rape too—her grandmother was raped by Nazi soldiers during the Holocaust. Survived only, Ari tells us, by having sex with them.

Naturally, the idea of witches appeals to her, of women back in history who banded together, who possessed the wisdom of how to deliver babies and cure illness (and even vaccinate, as Biss tells us). She rescues a new friend, Mina, from the throes of early motherhood by nursing her baby, an age-old practice. The two of them set up a raft of their own, and for a time, this is everything.

(I was once so angry at having had a c-section that I was given a pamphlet for a support group that helps women heal from and grieve their c-section experiences. “What kind of bullshit is this?” I was exclaiming and my terrible husband with an evil glint in his eye said, “I think you should go.” I protested and he shrugged calmly: “You’ve been grieving your c-section for four years,” he said. My fist shook at the ceiling. “I am allowed,” I told him, “to grieve my c-section and find c-section support groups totally stupid.” You can see how Ari was someone for whom I had great empathy.)

7.

No, listen, the problem is that no one ever talks about this stuff. Or maybe that when they do talk, nobody listens. See point one: Nobody cares about babies.

“Adrienne Rich had it right. No one gives a crap about motherhood unless they can profit off it. Women are expendable and the work of childbearing, done fully, done consciously, is all-consuming. So who’s going to write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it?”

(Or perhaps it’s that even those who are listening have no context. [“Could it be true that one has to experience in order to understand? I have always denied this idea, and yet of motherhood, for me at least, it seems to be the case.”—Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work].)

Here is something I love about After Birth: Albert doesn’t think that a novel about new motherhood need read like the catalogue for a hipster baby boutique. The stuff is not the stuff, she knows. Stuff is lazy shorthand. It’s a way of getting away from the point.

There is so much I love about how Albert captures the crisis of new motherhood in After Birth. (Her non-fiction piece on this in the Guardian is one of the best things I have ever read about this topic.)

“The baby books said nothing about this. Days became nights became days because nights.” And, “So the dissertation thing is pretty much a lie. But you need an identity, some interest and occupation outside having a kid, you just do. Otherwise the kid will be your sole interest and occupation, and we all know how that works out for everyone.”

And, “I did not understand how there could be no break. No rest. There was just no end to it. It went on and on and on.”

And, “When I see pregnant women, I want to take them by their shoulders and shake. I mean shake. Are you ready?”

And, “I nurse while she pumps to encourage supply. She says something about it being difficult to get out when the weather’s so shitty and I say something like yeah, winter’s a shitty time to have a baby and she says something like it’s always kind of a shitty time to have a baby though isn’t it?”

7.

The problem, sweetheart, is you.

This is a line delivered by the ghost of Ari’s bitch mother near the end of novel when Ari finally confesses, “Fine, I do hate women… They’re so obedient, traitorous. Descendants of the ones who gave up other women as witches.”

Her mother’s line is important because it’s kind of true, in particular as suggested by the novel’s final sentence. The problem is Ari, because she is a specific literary character and not a statement on womankind or motherhood (and many a commenter on Goodreads seems to have difficulty understanding this distinction). She’s a fascinating, messed-up, smart and self-destructive literary character. She doesn’t affirm anything. You will think she is wrong about a lot of things. But this doesn’t mean she’s not worth reading. In some ways, it makes her so much more worth reading than any literary character whose story can be tied up in a perfect bow.

The line is also important as a statement on motherhood though, an idea I’m still teasing out. That while indeed the problem is that women are all too isolated in early motherhood (and they are), it’s not just that other women don’t save us, but that they can’t. That every woman has to discover her own way through. Naomi Stadlen writes about this in a book called What Mothers Do that I found troubling for its simplistic notions and failure to understand maternal ambivalence, but the following passage in one of the smartest I’ve ever encountered on the subject:

“If she feels disoriented, this is not a problem requiring bookshelves of literature to put right. No, it is exactly the right state of mind for the teach-yourself process that lies ahead of her. Every time a woman has a baby she has something to learn, partly from her culture but also from her baby. If she really considered herself an expert, or if her ideas were set, she would find it very hard to adapt to her individual baby. Even after her first baby, she cannot sit back as an expert on all babies. Each child will be a little different and teach her something new. She needs to feel uncertain in order to be flexible. So, although it can feel so alarming, the ‘all-at-sea’ feeling is appropriate. Uncertainty is a good starting point for a mother. Through uncertainty, she can begin to learn.”

8.

And she does learn—this is the thing. Perhaps even Ari will. And not long after the end of the first year (which for me was when storm had ceased, I could see the shapes of things, but trauma was still so recent, and I wrote this) those early days begin to fade. Motherhood itself becomes less all-consuming (literally and figuratively), one’s rage at having a c-section or not becomes less potent, the baby becomes a human, breastfeeding is no longer such a preoccupation, sharing parental duties becomes easier, you sleep more, and it’s all less boring and shattering.

Which is to say that Elisa Albert has documented a very particular moment in motherhood in After Birth, instead of motherhood in general. And that this insistence upon specificity—in spite of her narrator’s generalized wailing in collective pronouns (which is what trips less-careful readers up, I think), in spite of the moments in which our identification with her is visceral—is the novel’s greatest strength. Specificity is what turns a political statement (and oh, this is one) into literature.

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