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Pickle Me This

October 17, 2017

A far cry from Mr. Stillingfleet’s stuff

I’ve never been to the Victoria College Book Sale on opening day before, because it’s always on a Thursday and you have to pay $5 to get in, but I hadn’t planned my life well during the weekend the sale was happening last month, and my only chance to go at all would be during the ninety minutes between when the sale kicked off at 2pm and when I had to pick my children up from school at 3:30. So I cobbled together the admission fee, literally out of dimes and nickels from a jar in my kitchen, which made for very heavy pockets, but I got there, and learned of just one distinction between the Victoria College Book Sale on its first day and all the days thereafter: there are Barbara Pym books for sale.

It’s difficult to find used copies of Barbara Pym novels. Her readership was never huge enough, at least not in Canada, as compared to writers like Margaret Drabble, Hilary Mantel and Penelope Lively, whose novels are mainstays at secondhand bookstores (which is the way that I fell in love with all of these writers, and others). I like to think, however, that it’s not just that Pym’s readers are few and far between, but that they’re also quite devoted. The secondhand copies of Barbara Pym novels that I do have came from a house contents sale in my neighbourhood after the death of its elderly owner (which in itself is kind of Pymmish), and that’s the only way I’ll ever be getting rid of Barbara Pym books, by which I mean: over my head body. (I imagine they’re easier to find in secondhand bookshops in England; also, many of her works have brought back into print by Virago Modern Classics with fun cartoonish covers in the last ten years and I’m sure those copies are turning up in charity shops).

Anyway, finding Barbara Pym novels at the Vic Book Sale was exciting enough, but even more remarkable was finding one I hadn’t read yet. I thought I’d read them all, including a collection of her letters and another of unpublished short fiction, and the first book she ever wrote, Crampton Hodnet, which wasn’t published until after her death. I thought I’d spanned the entirety of the Pymosphere, and was content to spend the rest of my life then just rereading her, at least once a summer and maybe even more so, but then there was An Academic Question. I’d missed it altogether. Also published after her death, written during her wilderness years in the early 1970s (before she was “rediscovered” and brought back into print, winning the Booker Prize in 1977 and publishing two more books before her death in 1980).

I started reading An Academic Question on Friday night because I’d been reading A Few Green Leaves (the official newsletter of the Barbara Pym Society) in the bathroom (as you do) and then checked my email to find a reminder that I hadn’t yet renewed my Pym Society membership for 2017. I did so, and took note of the universe conspiring to send me in a Barbara Pym direction, and I’ve already got a backlog of books I have to write about anyway so this would be an excellent opportunity to read for fun and not have to write about it at all.

Take note: I am writing about it. Barbara Pym never fails to incite…

The novel starts off a little roughly. In her note on the text, Hazel Holt writes that it’s cobbled together from two drafts, one in first person and the other in third. Before the book’s spell had taken hold, I kept getting caught on clunky prose and repeated words..but then at some point these problems ceased or else I stopped noticing them. As per Holt’s note, Pym wrote to Philip Larkin of the novel in June 1971: “It was supposed to be a sort of Margaret Drabble effort but of course it hasn’t turned out like that at all.” Which interested me—I remember reading about Pym’s relationship to Drabble’s work in the years when Pym herself wasn’t being published, deemed irrelevant while Drabble herself was very fashionable, her antithesis.

You can see what Pym was up to here—this is a story of a young faculty wife whose sister has had an abortion and lives in London with a man who designs the sets for the news program her husband’s colleagues appear on, all the while the students at the university are going through a period of unrest. In a superficial way, this is Drabble’s milieu—but Pym can’t help but spin it in her own way. It’s the interiority of her protagonist, her doubts and questions, her sense of humour. Caroline is undeniably Pymmish in her preoccupations, spending most of her time with her gay best friend Coco who dotes on his high maintenance mother. While Drabble’s characters are all on the verge of slitting their wrists in a bathtub, Caroline is unfailingly stoic, even at a remove:

‘What was the point of it all?’ Kitty had asked me plaintively, and I felt that for her the evening had been a disappointment, as indeed so many evenings must be now. And what had been the point, really? A few gentle cultured people trying to stand up against the tide of mediocrity that was threatening to swamp them? I who had hardly known anything different could sympathize with their views but for myself I didn’t really listen to the radio; I went about my household tasks, such as they were, absorbed by my own broody thoughts.

And while this is one of Pym’s rare novels that doesn’t contain a single curate, let alone a mention of The Church Times, has only handful of references to jumble sales and the characters drink coffee instead of tea (I KNOW!), the humour is still wryly, undeniably Pymmish. The following passage would never be found in a Margaret Drabble novel:

We sat drinking cups of instant coffee and smoking, commiserating with each other. An unfaithful husband and a dead hedgehog—sorrows not to be compared, you might say, on a different plane altogether. Yet there was hope that Alan would turn to me again  while the hedgehog could never come back.

The book wouldn’t work, Pym felt, according to Holt, for its cosiness, and it was remarkable how often the word “cosy” appears in the text (alone with the word “detached”). Which got me thinking about the literary implications of cosiness, as opposed to grittiness, I suppose. Thinking of cosy made me think of rooms, of comfortable sofas, piles of books on the table, interesting items on the mantel—all of which are things that furnish Pym’s books, including this one. Cosy isn’t fashionable, it’s true, what what it is  instead is timeless, which might be why we’re reading Pym today while Margaret Drabble’s early novels seem so dated and are out print.

Pym’s Caroline is detached from her life as faculty wife—her husband has proved to be less interesting that she thought he might be, he’s been unfaithful, and she finds herself at a loss as to how support him in his work as one expects she should. She finds motherhood a bit boring and her daughter is cared for by the Swedish au pair anyway. Apart from her friendship with Coco, Caroline doesn’t have anyone to have real conversations with, and when she does talk to Coco, he has no qualms about finding her provincial life kind of tiresome. She spends some time reading to Mr. Stillingfleet, a retired professor at an old people’s home, revealing to her husband that the professor keeps a box of academic papers by his bedside…which ignites her husband’s interest in visiting the frail old man, so he can scoop material from the box and pull an academic coup over his superior. And then Caroline is left with the ethical question of what to do with the stolen paper afterwards, and just where her loyalties lie, and what compromises indeed she is willing to make in the name of her husband’s success…

“‘Hospital romances,’ I said to Dolly that evening when she called around to see us. ‘That’s what I’m reading now. It’s a far cry from Mr. Stillingfleet’s stuff.”

‘Maybe, but it is all life,’ said Dolly in her firmest tone, ‘and no aspect of life is to be despised.”

October 16, 2017

My Conversations With Canadians, by Lee Maracle

Have you ever listened to Lee Maracle speak? I hadn’t, except for a spot on the radio last year where she totally stole the show. Which meant that I kind of knew what I’d be getting into when I went to her presentation at The Word on the Street last month, and she delivered completely. Terrifyingly smart, warm, informed, funny, biting, and not here for any of your shit, was the impression I got from Lee Maracle. I bought her book immediately after the session, the new essay collection My Conversations With Canadians, the latest in BookThug’s Essais non-fiction series. It’s a book born of Maracle’s experiences over the years addressing audience questions at book events, the book’s most central one being from the old man who gets up and asks her, “What are you going to do with us white guys—drive us into the sea?” Never mind Maracle’s formidable response to him, which you’re going to have to read the book to figure out, but I’m still hung up on the man himself, what he stands for. How do you get to be the person with nerve enough to stand up and demand anything of Lee Maracle, is what I’m wondering about, not least because, well, it means that you get to talk instead of Lee Maracle. I don’t have a problem with self-esteem, but I’ve never thought highly enough of myself for that.

Of course, the question I am asking is rhetorical; how do you get to be that guy? And the answer is white supremacy and patriarchy. Which doesn’t absolve me, of course. Which doesn’t place me outside of that audience of Canadians that Maracle is addressing in these essays. Some of which made me uncomfortable, actually—my experience of the world has left me with no understanding of the power of song, for example, which Maracle writes about in her first essay: “we can sing you up to wellness or sing you down to illness, even death. It is the power of our songs. We could even raise our poles with song.” I delineate this to show that even though much of Maracle writes about does not make me uncomfortable—centralizing indigenous experience, issues of cultural appropriation and stealing stories; the necessity of elevating oratory; fiction as a powerful truth—that I understand the experience of someone who might approach the book and its ideas with some hesitancy. Someone who doesn’t know quite yet that the point is to be unsettled after all.

“It is not enough to acknowledge something—you must commit to its continued growth and transformation,” Maracle writes in her essay, “What Do I Call You?” Which is to say that learning and growing is the very point, that being progressive is a process and one you’re never finished with if you’re doing it properly. Which is why welcoming this experience of being unsettled is the very point, along with sitting the fuck down and listening.

I loved this book. I love the way that Maracle peppers her work with allusions to so many incredible Indigenous writers in Canada who are changing the world, sentence by sentence, how My Conversations With Canadians is also the most terrific bibliography. I love how she writes about Indigenous identity, and how Canadian identity is never questioned, or at least not in a non-superficial way. “I am not quite sure how the identity of Indigenous people became fallible and questionable to Canadians, while their own identity is not, but I can say this much: I do not recall ever having doubts about my identity, The point they are making is that my identity is violable—it can be violated.” (Which reminds me of Camille T. Dungy’s comments about her identity as a Black woman: ‘that you see me as a “regular” person suggests that in order to see me as regular some parts of my identity must be nullified. Namely, the parts that aren’t like you.’)

Maracle writes about intersectionality, about feminism, she dismantles the myth of Canadian niceness, and the myth of objectivity too, and then writes about the true myths that are “the path to truth and knowledge”—something science, she writes, is only just beginning to understand. About giving up “the knower’s chair,” which assumes that we as Canadians as the teachers, and Indigenous people our students (i.e. sit down, bellowing old man!). Gender binary and making a link between the idea of binary and that which binds us, an etymological link that had never occurred to me before. A whole chapter is devoted to cultural appropriation, and knowledge and stories as an inheritance which has been stolen from Indigenous children. (Here I’ll repeat something I’ve written before, that until I read Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, I really thought that the theft we talk about in terms of what was taking from Indigenous people was mostly metaphorical. I had no idea…)

She writes, “Rather than looking at where we are in a hierarchical order of things, we should look at our responsibility toward the lives we are dependent upon. In any relationship, we have responsibilities, obligations, and disciplined interaction. We cannot simple do “whatever we want” in the name of freedom.” I also loved this in a following paragraph, “All engagement is a moment of sharing, every morsel of food a moment of sharing from earth to us and back.” In that same essay, “Humility is crucial to recognizing and examining our failures, our mistakes, our contribution to broken relations…” And then she goes on with this brilliance, “Do not mistake my kindness for acceptance of the absence of the right of access to my land or my love for it. Further, do not mistake my kindness for a relinquishment of who I am and who I will always want to be.”

“Settlers ought to look at their history, then look in the mirror. After annihilating our populations, and much of the animal life on this continent and in the oceans, and after spoiling the air, and the waters, who would want to be you?”

Are you unsettled yet?

As I read this book, I kept thinking of the bellowing man asking questions, and that guy had become a stand-in for the kind of Canadian journalist who has made an industry out of writing about Indigenous issues, not so subtly underlining his racism with every click on his keyboard. About how all this focus on colonialism and intergenerational trauma, and de-centreing whiteness, and giving credence to Indigenous forms of knowledge has, well, threatened to destabilize our white supremacist patriarchal society, and for obvious reasons this really bothers this guy. Because of how he refuses not to see himself as central, as neutral, as non-complicit in any of the systems that perpetuate the tragedy of Indigenous people and their communities.

What would happen if he read this book, I wondered. Like actually read, instead of making inflammatory notes in the margins and planning his rebuttals. What if the bellowing old man actual shut up, sat down and listened?

In the words of poet Muriel Rukeyser: perhaps the world would split open.

October 10, 2017

Dazzle Patterns, by Alison Watt

When I’m reading historical fiction, it always takes me a bit of time to get settled in the story, to find my bearings in terms of place and time. It’s like travelling to any land that’s a bit foreign, I suppose, where the customs and language aren’t quite what you’re familiar with. And so I knew to be patient when I started reading Dazzle Patterns, the debut novel by Alison Watt, whose previous works include poetry and award-winning non-fiction. Which wasn’t hard because the premise was compelling: a young woman is working in the local glassworks in Halifax in 1917 as a flaw-checker, dreaming of passage to Europe where her fiancé has been fighting. Parts of the story is also from his point of view, Leo, traumatized after surviving the Battle of Passchendaele, though he doesn’t write that home in his letters. And the other protagonist is Fred Baker, an artisan who works with Clare at the glassworks. He’s the one who delivers to her the hospital on that December day when two ships collide in Halifax Harbour, leading to the explosion that levels huge swathes of the city, leaving so many Haligonians dead or injured. Fred spends the next few days working without ceasing in the overcrowded makeshift morgue, but this doesn’t keep him from falling under suspicion by his colleagues and official authorities—though he’s long been a Canadian citizen, Fred was born in Germany, and there are many people in Halifax who aren’t convinced that the explosion was an accident.

Clare begins to recover from her injuries as Halifax itself slowly rebuilds after the tragedy, and she’s pulled between her parents’ wishes to shelter her and her yearning for independence. When Leo is reported missing, Clare realizes that she’s lost her getaway plan, as well as her fiancé, and contemplates the limits of the future before her. To stay busy as her recovery continues, she begins taking painting lessons at the School of Art, where Fred is also a student. And the connection before them does not occur in cliched ways one might expect, because this is too interesting a story for that, besides there are complications—Clare still loves Leo, and her landlady’s daughter has fallen in love with Fred.

These central strands to the story become woven in a wonderful fashion. The novel’s title comes from the patterns painted onto ships to break up their silhouettes and make the vessels more protected from German U-Boats, which is just one very practical role that artists played in supporting the war effort. Watt portrays other roles as well, artists documenting the war by painting battlefields and the ships in Halifax Harbour, real-life Canadian artists appearing as characters in the book alongside Fred and Clare. The intricacy of glasswork in particular is an important element of the story, glass’s amazing technological capabilities but also its fragility. This is a novel about art, and vision, about seeing, and looking carefully at things—and about what happens when other people fail to do so. The Halifax Explosion and World War One are the book’s backdrop, but not its reason for being—and these historical events aren’t manipulated either to become metaphors to serve the author’s purposes. War and destruction are brutal and violent with long-term ramifications that take years to come to the surface. There is nothing heroic about any of it, except for the people who show up to help others.

And so there would eventually come a point when Dazzle Patterns won me over entirely, as you’ve probably noticed, when its people and the streets they walk on became as vivid as the room I’m sitting in now. I loved this book, the art of its tapestry, all of it leading toward an ending that was absolutely perfect.

October 5, 2017

What Happened, by Hillary Clinton

Maybe Hillary Clinton is like cilantro, and you’ve just got a taste for it or you don’t. But I do, and it’s longstanding, which I know because in 1998 I sent Hillary Clinton an email voicing my support in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and I recall respecting her decision to not give up on her marriage. Which was kind of a weird thing for an 18-year-old to be concerned with, and not very feminist really, or maybe it is. I didn’t identify as a feminist when I was 18 anyway, and I spent the 1990s’ as a middle aged woman in a teenager’s body, plus there just wasn’t a lot going on on the internet at this point and so sending emails to the White House was how one passed the time.

Hillary Clinton’s 2003 autobiography Living History was the very first book I ever wrote a review of online, during a brief period in 2004 when I had a book blog with a friend and imagined that I too could be a book blogger like Maud Newton but then it all seemed too ambitious and the book blog fizzled out. (And yes, boys and girls, I, like Hillary Clinton, am living proof that we can achieve our dreams. At least if the limits of our dreams are book blogging, I mean.) We lived in Japan at the time and I remember buying the book in the bookshop in our town that was located on top of the train station, just one of a handful of books in the entire store that was in English and therefore I had the literary skills to pick it up and read it. Books were rare then, which is funny because now I basically live in a castle constructed of them. All of that was a long time ago.

But I remember my main frustration with that book, which was Clinton’s refusal to admit her exceptionalness. Her remarkable life, she wrote, was a product of her time, of having been born in a moment where there would be opportunities for Americans, and American women in particular, as there had never been before. Her story, as she told it, was a part of a larger story, which is all fine and well, I guess, but it didn’t explain why everybody then had not become Hillary Rodham Clinton then. I mean, yes, the entire graduating class at Wellesley in 1967 was undoubtedly impressive, but she had been chosen to give their commencement address. Hers was a singular story too, and I wanted more of that.

Which is what you get in her brand new bestselling memoir, What Happened. A book in which Clinton talks about her reasons for pursuing the presidency a second time and dares to state this: “The most compelling argument is the hardest to say out loud: I was convinced that both Bill and Barack were right when they said I would be a better President than anyone out there.” If you have any idea how difficult it is to articulate something like this about oneself, you are probably a woman too.

In this book, Clinton has learned the invaluable lessons that failure has to teach us (and she learned it twice), plus she is angry, and she’s taking shit from no one. She’s no longer giving history all the benefit for her own success and for that of others. Of the women’s movement, she writes, “And it was and is the story of my life—mine and millions of other women’s. We share it. We wrote it together. We’re still writing it. And even though this sounds like bragging and bragging isn’t something women are supposed to do, I haven’t just been a participant in this revolution. I helped to lead it.”

She writes about her working going undercover in the American south during the early 1970s to find schools were segregation practices were still the norm (and there were plenty of them); of her work as a lawyer for women and families; of her successful attempts to found the Children’s Health Insurance Plans during her husband’s presidency, which provided healthcare for millions of American children and which the US government let lapse this week. A lot of this book is heartbreaking, as Clinton reflects on her plans for her Presidency and reflects on the winning candidate’s first actions in office. She reflects on her mistakes throughout her public life, on the many times she’s changed her mind, on her regrets, the evolution of her ideas. In fact, she reflects on all of these more than any man ever would, in that way that women are made to think they must do and the public only doubles down on this inclination. The double standard is incredible, and I never properly understood how systemic and institutionalized (and psychologized) it was until the American election of 2016. In some ways, learning the truth of the matter is incredible. In other ways, not so much.

And yet, this is also an inspiring memoir. It moved me to tears more than a few times. There was a moment reading this book where I felt something unlike anything I’d felt in years, which is envy for American people, for American women in particular (I know!) who had that singular experience of seeing a woman’s name on the ballot in their election for head of state and even got to place an x beside it. (Full disclosure: in our last Federal election, however, I had the amazing privilege of choosing between two exceptionally qualified and inspiring women candidates. That was also an incredible thing.)

Hillary Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Howell Rodham, was born June 4, 1919, “the exact same day that Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, finally granting women the right to vote.” So yes, sometimes the backdrops against which lives are shaped are incontrovertible and the connections can be uncanny. But that is only the half of it. The other have is the story of a person who is an actual human, which is say that she is an imperfect candidate. A phrase I’m still kind of obsessed with—because who isn’t? Certainly not Clinton’s running mate in 2016. But I was aware of her imperfections during the election, as no doubt we all were as a result of the biased media coverage Clinton refuses to condone in What Happened. And I remember tempering my enthusiasm for her, not wanting to speak up in support of Clinton, because to so would be invite a storm of vitriol from those concerned with her “Wall Street ties” and war crimes, those for whom she was not a taste that could even be acquired, those people who hated for all the ways in which it’s so much easier to hate a woman than a man, in all their pantsuited specificity.

But no more. Because I learned something from the 2016 American election, which is the danger of staying quiet, of being polite, of trying to please everyone. If I could take anything away from this political morass we’ve found ourselves in, it’s the courage to be half as brave as Hillary Rodham Clinton.

October 3, 2017

Snacks: A Canadian Food History, by Janis Thiessen

As soon as I heard about Janis Thiessen’s book, Snacks: A Canadian Food History, I knew I’d want to read it, for so many reasons, not least of all because I’d necessarily have to purchase snacks in order to authentically Instagram my reading experience. Props, I mean. Plus, basically I’ll do almost anything to justify a bag of potato chips. I knew the book would inevitably lead to the purchase of cheezies: “It’s for work,” I’d tell the sales clerk, making sure to save my receipt. “The things I do to support Canadian and books and literature”, I’d self-congratulate, all the while licking orange cheese dust off my fingers. And all of this pretty much perfectly transpired, with the added bonus of the book being fascinating.

Now, if you cannot fathom how a book about the history of snack food might be fascinating, then I’m not going to try to win you over, but if Snacks already sounds intriguing to you, you won’t be sorry. Thiessen begins her book by placing snack food in the context of contemporary food culture, which stresses health and wellness, all things “natural” over processed, and sees fit to gloss over class, gender and labour issues in the ways we value and talk about food. She writes about the role of snacks in her childhood, which made me think a lot about the potato chips that were a fixture of my life when I was growing up—and how my Dad’s glove compartment was always packed with Bazooka bubble gum. She gives an inventory of her own family’s pantry, and challenges the vilification of snack foods in several interesting ways.

I wanted to buy a bag of Old Dutch potato chips to accompany my Hawkins Cheezies, but tracking down a bag here in Ontario would prove surprisingly difficult. Or not so surprising, I would learn, as I started reading about the Potato Chips Wars of the early 1990s (which were really a thing!) in which Old Dutch tried to expand into Eastern markets and Hostess Frito-Lay would go into Toronto stores and buy all their Old Dutch stock, promising discounts on their products if they didn’t sell Old Dutch again. My husband finally tracked down a bag at a convenience store on Bloor near Bathurst. Previously, he’d seen a box of 50 mini chip bags on sale for Halloween, and I admonished him for not buying the box—it was portion controlled, I pointed out. We could have kept the box around and had chips for weeks and weeks, except that we then devoured the one bag of chips he did buy so thoroughly that I realized no chips were safe in our midst. It was honestly fascinating to learn more about the history of the potato chip though, its industrial and agricultural histories, about the consolidation of potato chip companies in Canada, that Old Dutch, that Canadian mainstay, isn’t even actually Canadian….

Neither is Hawkins Cheezies, I was shocked to learned, or at least it didn’t start out that way. Hawkins began as a big American snack food company that fell apart due to scandals connected to divorces and Mafia ties, and what was left of the company was a plant making cheeses in Tweed, Ontario, whose business has remained unchanged for more than half a century. There is a mythology around these products, a national mythology too, and Thiessen probes these to interesting ends. Her research consists of oral stories by plant employees, getting at the labour side of snacks in a way that most food discourses neglect to. Readers learn about the experience of working at or managing Old Dutch and Hawkins plants, and other food companies, as well as candy, chocolate and biscuit factories. (Interesting fact: huge risk of fire and explosion in candy factories. Who knew?) Other companies Thiessen writes about include Paulins, Moirs (whose 1980s’ commercial for Pot of Gold I remember well…) and Ganong, Robertson’s Candy, Cavalier Candies, Purity Factories, and Scott-Bathgate.

The book’s last chapter is about a game show produced regionally across the Canadian Prairies in the 1960s called Kids Bids, wherein children were encouraged to save wrappers from Old Dutch potato chips and then bring in their collections to the show to bid on coveted items—top prize was a bicycle. Exploitive and unhealthy, perhaps, but Thiessen shows how the show gave children agency and opportunities…and basically eliminated litter from chip bags. Oh, those were the days…

September 25, 2017

Once More With Feeling, by Méira Cook

“This novel was not what I was expecting,” I wrote in my review of Méira Cook’s debut novel, The House on Sugarbush Road, in 2013, and it makes me laugh to see that now, because it’s exactly what I was going to say about her latest novel, Once More With FeelingPossibly the only thing a reader can do with a Méira Cook novel is have no expectations at all. Because if you do, she’ll only grab you by them, and then swing you around and around her shoulder like a cowboy with a lasso. Or at least this was my experience of Once More With Feeling, which I’d been led to believe via the cover copy would be sweet and heartwarming, doddering professor Max Binder delivering an ill-advised gift to his wife on her birthday, the wife he’s still besotted with. I’d been setting myself up for a sweet comedy, a little bit homey and twee. But then the car drove off the road… Metaphorically and otherwise, and here we were barrelling down the off-roads, narratively speaking.

Once More With Feeling is not an easy book. (I think I said this about The House on Sugarbush Road as well.) It won’t be to everyone’s taste and there are things about it that are troubling, and I would have appreciated the end coming just a bit sooner than it did. I started reading this book on a plane, and to be completely honest there were a couple of points early on where I might have put the book down, had I not been thousands of feet in the air without another book to read. Not a singing endorsement, I know, but bear with me. I kept going, and it was not long after that it became clear to be that there was actually no better book for a four hour flight, or no situation better than a flight to enjoy a book like this. To give it the sustained attention it requires, and to have my reading time so richly filled with so many voices and stories. It’s hard to appreciate a feast in tiny bites, is what I mean, and so it was nice to just keep my seatbelt on and read voraciously.

Once More With Feeling is a novel about a city, Winnipeg in four seasons, although Winnipeg isn’t named. It’s specified though, and it reminded me of my favourite Winnipeg novel, Carol Shields’ The Republic of Love, in how the city is evoked, the sweep of its year. The two books are complementary, though Once More With Feeling is darker, with an edge. And every chapter is from a different perspective, connections between some of the characters tangential, and we get to see some of them from their internal monologues and also from far away. There is startling ambition as to the range of characters how share the story’s helm, a relay passed from one to another. Literature Professor Max Binder, then his wife’s editor at the local newspaper (whose contents we glimpse via letters from outraged readers). The newspaper’s spinster bookkeeper (who has a secret life of her own, surely) volunteers at a local mission that serves food to the homeless, and so the next chapter is from the perspective of another volunteer, whose mother is the Binder’s cleaner and whose sister is just one of many women who’ve gone missing on the city’s streets. And onward, through Max Binder’s children, and their schoolmates.

My favourite chapter was “Inspirational Living Centre,” from the perspective of a wayward high school student whose class gets paired up with Holocaust survivors. And while the bubbly popular girls in the class embrace this experience (“On the way back from the Inspirational Living Centre some of the girls said theirs were “cute” and Courtney Segal even said hers was “adorable.”) But the narrator is matched with a curmudgeonly asshole who refuses to be inspirational, and even ticks off Courtney Segal on the bus ride home—”Why can’t you keep your Holocaust survivor from bothering ours?” she demands.

Teenagers at the mall, a camp director in September, a chorus of Jewish mothers reflecting on Bar and Bat Mitzvahs past in a chapter that reminded me of Grace Paley (in which time made a monkey of us all). A chapter from the perspective of Lazer Binder’s English teacher’s ex-hushand, the Binders’ next door neighbour, two elderly sisters, and then back to Maggie after a year of grief and rage and the arrival of the missing piece of the puzzle of what ultimately happened to Max. And what is the plot? Which is the same question as what propels the story? Well, the sweep of days and months and change of the seasons, of course, the furious momentum of life itself, in a city in particular where nothing sits still for a moment.

Although with a Méira Cook novel (and this is her third) the language is as important as the plot is, and the vocabulary of this one is rich and dextrous. Cook is an extraordinary writer, an award-winning poet, as adept at plotting words as story—her sentences are truly magnificent.

September 21, 2017

The Mother, by Yvvette Edwards

Last week I read The Mother, by Yvvette Edwards, a really beautiful and harrowing story of a mother attending the trial of the boy whose been accused of murdering her teenage son. Written in the first person in a voice that is raw and sometimes faltering, it’s not an easy read emotionally, but the novel is also fast paced and gripping. It evokes interesting question about motherhood, race, class and the ways in which we all assume our families, our children, can be inoculated against the social problems outside our warm and and cozy homes. The ways in which we assume too that we can exist apart from the world and its violence, and that there are issues we can say with certainty, “That is not my problem.”

It’s a deeply thoughtful and warmly provocative novel, Edwards’ second after A Cupboard Full of Clothes, which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. I learned of this title after reading Donna Bailey Nurse’s interview with Edwards, which you can read here—and I am so glad I did.

From Donna Bailey Nurse: “I admire Edwards’s authentic portrayal of Caribbean men and women. She is particularly adept at capturing the lithe movements of a certain kind of West Indian male. I was not surprised to learn that Toni Morrison is her “star” author or that she counts Beloved among her most cherished novels. As in Beloved, Edwards works with the opposing forces of murder and motherhood. And like Morrison, the psychological action of her fiction unfolds largely within the realm of black people. In The Mother Edwards describes the harsh circumstances and complex dynamics of an embattled community. At the same time she conveys the sense of a black British family rooted firmly in love.”

September 19, 2017

We All Love the Beautiful Girls, by Joanne Proulx

A thing I think is funny is a description in Joanne Proulx’s biography accompanying her recently released second novel, We All Love the Beautiful Girls. Among much acclaim for her previous novel is the detail that it won “Canada’s Sunburst Award for Fantastic Fiction,” which would be a cool award to be win, I imagine. To be officially fantastic. Although the tag for the Sunburst Award is “for excellence in the Canadian literature of the fantastic.” Which is to say genre, sci-fi and fantasy. Which is to say that Proulx, whose previous book was the YA title Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, as an author requires tricks to be packaged, wrapped up tidily in a neat little box for her mainstream novel about the perils of modern family life.

And this is makes We All Love the Beautiful Girls so interesting, I think. Fantastic, even, in the non-supernatural sense of the word. It makes the novel not wrapped up or tidy or boxy in the slightest, instead furious with momentum, bursting open, exploding at seams.

I read the second half of this novel in a few hours one Saturday night, because it was a story that just kept going and going. Although I wasn’t sure at the very beginning, when all the action gets out of the way in a chapter or two: Michael and Mia discover they’ve been bilked out of their life-savings by a business partner/friend, and then their son, Finn, passes out in the snow at a party, nearly dying, with injuries he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life. All of this within the first 50 pages of a book over 300 pages long—what else can happen? Oh, only everything, and it’s how Proulx frames this narrative that is so fascinating, not on the drama itself but on unintended consequences, the shocking, tragic and terrifying ways that one thing can lead to another.

This is a novel with sharp edges and tight corners, and it’s a novel not afraid to make its reader uncomfortable. Told from Michael and Mia’s points of view in third-person and Finn’s in first person, the narrative is fragmented, patchwork, and then all the pieces become drawn together in the most disturbing fashion. And then it dawns on the reader as it dawns on the characters, that all these things are connected—objectification of and/or violence against women in particular, and how each and every character is implicated, and we see that that two characters peripheral to the story—Jess, a former babysitter now college student who sneaks in Finn’s window to sleep with him; Frankie, Finn’s contemporary whose feelings for him aren’t returned—and Mia herself are not so far apart after all in their experiences of womanhood and what is required for survival.

Some of the very worst things are what turn out to be universal.

September 12, 2017

What is Going to Happen Next, by Karen Hofmann

A group of siblings running wild in rural British Columbia, under the dubious care of their hippie dad while their mother has been hospitalized for psychiatric problems. We first glimpse them through the point-of-view of twelve-year-old Cleo who sees herself as the family lynchpin, caring for her younger brothers along with her older sister, Mandalay. Just barely holding it together, and then their father dies. The police are at the door. Cleo is trying to pass herself off a a responsible agent, so earnestly that the reader can almost forget that she is only a child. But she is indeed only a child, and her baby brother will be adopted, Cleo and her brothers placed in foster care, Mandalay in a group home. Each of the siblings set in very different orbits…and the novel actually begins twenty years on from all that.

Cleo is a middle-class mother of two small children, overwhelmed by the excruciating demands of early motherhood and hungry for intellectual stimulation. Hofmann so exactly captures the claustrophobic impossibility of life with small children, and all the details that can trip one up—navigating strollers through rough terrain, the preparation and work required for a trip on the bus. The loneliness too, and this is only added to as the unnavigability of the world with small children keeps Cleo close to home. That she has no example in her own past of functional family life leaves Cleo even more stranded than the average mother of young children. Her husband is not without sympathy, but he’s frustrated, and not receptive to what his wife is going through.

Meanwhile, Cleo’s sister Mandalay is living a different kind of life in the downtown core of Vancouver, far away from the suburbs. We find her at at a particularly high point—the cafe she has been co-managing has just found acclaim by being written up in a magazine. Mandalay loves her job, her co-worker, that she is responsible for arranging art in the place and becoming known for her skills in curation. Sure, her apartment is tiny and expensive, and her work means she is busy all the time, but Mandalay finds herself fulfilled for the first time in her life, after years spent hitching onto the rides of the men she’s been in relationships with. Which, inconveniently, is the moment that Duane turns up, a man who suits her in so many ways but is unwilling to provide proper emotional ties. But does she want these? Does she need these? What kind of relationship does Mandalay think she deserves?

And then finally, there is their younger brother Cliff, hapless, utterly lacking guile. He’s not stupid though, Cliff, and he knows the problem is mainly other people. So he knows, for instance, not to let people know about his new TV, when he finally saves up from his landscaping job for the one he’s been looking for. He knows that when other people find out he’s got something, they’re only ever going to want to take it, so he keeps to himself. He works hard and has made a comfortable life for himself, and all he wants is to stay out of trouble…but trouble seems to find him. And Hofmann’s depiction of Cliff is one of the most wonderful parts of this book, how fully realized he is, without the cliches often fastened to literary characters lacking in IQ. How canny he actually has to be to get along in the world, and all the tricks and devices he’s figured out that nobody would ever give him credit for. He’s a terrific character.

The novel opens with the three siblings’ different narrative threads, each of which are far apart due to family history and how disparate their circumstances are in terms of life and also of postal codes. The three of them are in touch, but mainly see each other at holidays, can go weeks without a phone call. But when their long lost baby brother finally tracks them down, and then Cliff has an accident that requires him to recover in the relative quiet of Cleo’s suburban house, the siblings begin to come together again. And questions are raised not only about the practical matters of how characters who’ve come from different places can be a family, regardless of their mutual place of origin. But also about the role their past traumas play in the present day, and what those traumas are, exactly. It turns out the history each of them has taken for granted turns out to be more complicated than any of them have imagined. And what does that mean for the future?

I really liked Karen Hofmann’s first novel, After Alice, and was so pleased that What is Going to Happen Next lived up to my expectations—and then some. It’s a novel that’s as original as it is ambitious, and it works, resulting in an all-engrossing visceral reading experience, and I’m recommending it to everyone.

September 5, 2017

Guidebook to Relative Strangers, by Camille T. Dungy

I can’t remember the last time a book had so strong a hold on me as Camille T. Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood and History. A book whose force is evident from its opening page, a note of introduction. “When the nation that became the United States was beginning, women writers and black writers needed the endorsement of other people in order to prove their legitimacy,” Dungy writes in her very first sentence. Later in the paragraph: “The essays in the book you are reading are steeped in such history.” Dungy wants to resist this notion that she requires anyone but herself to demonstrate the merit of her work, and yet… She then she goes on to write five pages of the most beautifully written acknowledgements I’ve ever encountered in a book. A remarkable start, and an introduction indeed to Dungy’s expansiveness, generosity, thoughtfulness and ability to understand that two opposing ideas can be true at once.

Guidebook is a collection of essays, but like the best of such things is a journey itself, a whole worth more than its parts which fit so well that they don’t even seem like parts. It begins with an event from Dungy’s not so long-ago past, except that it was a thousand years ago because it was before she became a mother. She was at a writers’ retreat and trying not to become involved in a conversation about how she hadn’t seen the film, The Hours, because she didn’t care about The Hours. In this moment, as is often the case on this retreat, Dungy is the only black person at the table, and is therefore called upon to represent blackness and otherness to the white writers in her company. Which makes her tired—she’s just returned from time in Ghana and the essay contrasts these two experiences and she writes, “Perhaps it would be a more stable world if everyone could experience both the sensation of oneness and otherness a few times in life.” Back at the table, Dungy is assured that her companion doesn’t see her “as a black woman. You’re just who you are.” Which brings the author around to the powerful paragraph that led me to pick up this book in the first place, and certainly the paragraph delivers on everything this paragraph promises:

I am certainly who I am (an ornery individual at the moment) though I take umbrage at the idea of limiting my scope with a word like just when it is used to suggest that I am a simple person. If I may borrow a phrase from the great poet of our early democracy, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Just in this context erases various complexities and dimensions of my being. There is a danger in refusing to, or tacitly agreeing not to, recognize my black womanness. Black womanness is part of what makes me the unique individual that I am. To claim you do not recognize  that aspect of my personhood and insist, instead, that you see me as a “regular” person suggests that in order to see me as regular some parts of my identity must be nullified. Namely, the parts that aren’t like you.

Dungy is a professor, award-winning poet and editor, and devouring her non-fiction (I read this book in a day) put me in mind of Rebecca Solnit and Joan Didion (for style reasons and also San Francisco and California) and Anne Enright’s Making Babies with the perfect exuberance with which she writes about motherhood, and Leslie Jamison for the ways she writes about her body and her experiences with MS. Most of all, however, Dungy writes about language, which itself reveals so many secrets and much complexity. The essay “Bounds” is an incredible consideration of that words many meanings and what their connections tell us about human experience, about Dungy’s daughter’s language acquisition, about what divides us and what connects us, and how so often these two things are one and the same. I ordered this book not long after the terrifying events in Charlottesville, VA, in August, and it’s something to consider the images from the white supremacist rally against Dungy’s short essay about her time living in Virginia where her white friends delighted in bonfires, and she, because of the area’s legacy of racial violence, could only feel fear at the idea and reality of these kinds of events.

Dungy writes about her experiences travelling in America before her daughter turned two, when she was still nursing and could fly on her mother’s lap for free, and about the places they went and how Dungy would be both connected to and divided from the people she encountered, and how her daughter helped to mitigate the distance between Dungy and others. This is a book about the labours of motherhood and academia, and writing, and the ridiculous ways we negotiate these in the 21st century. It’s a book about cities and nature, and the words we use to describe these places, the names we call ourselves and others, and the places motherhood takes us where we never planned on going—I love a line in the essay “Inherent Risk, Or What I Know About Investment” that goes, “I passed the sign for the landmark every time I took the Fruitvale Avenue exist off I-580 on my way home, but I had no idea what it referred to until one day, when Callie still cried constantly unless she was moving, I strapped her into the stroller and walked until I found the place, which is how I started to know some of the things I’ve written here.”

The essay “Bodies of Evidence,” about birdwatching with her two friends who are two of the five black birders in America, so the joke goes; about her daughter’s infatuation with The Little Mermaid; about her own family’s legacy of racial violence; about Dungy spending her adult life trying to delay the onset of the diabetes that plagues her family, only to be diagnosed with MS; “When I am writing, it is always about history. What else could I be writing about? History is the synthesis of our lives;” about being the only person in her second-grade class who voted from Jimmy Carter in a 1980 mock-election; about a visit to a memorial of a lynching that took place in Duluth, Minnesota; about survival, be it through MS or poison oak—or a police officer pulling you over on a dark highway, if one happens to be black; about an article in the New Yorker about inequality, about an eclipse, about shadow. This is one essay. “Sometimes it is easy to draw meaning from the arbitrary order of things.” But of course there is nothing arbitrary about any of this—these essays are masterful. Buy this book now.

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