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June 26, 2020

Five Little Indians, by Michelle Good

‘Lucy leaned back in her chair, hands folded in her lap. “They call us survivors.” “Yeah.” “I don’t think I survived. Do you?”‘

Cree writer Michelle Good’s debut novel, Five Little Indians—winner of the HarperCollins UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, Good earning her MFA at UBC while also practising as a lawyer—is the story of five Indigenous young people who were taken from their families as children and grew up at a remote church-run residential school where they were subject to abuse and deprivation, and then cast back out into the world with nothing as they came of age—with no skills, no community or ancestral ties. Nothing but trauma, and then what happens next? And the novel is the answer to that question.

Set in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside during the 1960s and decades that follow, Five Little Indians weaves together the stories of Kenny (once notorious for his escapes from the school, a pattern that continues), Maisie (a mother figure for the others, but unable to comfort herself), Lucy (who finds meaning in motherhood), Clara (who finds herself in the American Indian Movement and connecting with the teachings of an elder), and Howie (who struggles to stay out of jail).

The first 100 pages are hard-going, not just because of the trauma they convey, but because the reader is still getting a sense of novel’s structure and the characters themselves too seem to be finding themselves, their feet, and are not as developed as they’ll be in the rest of the book. I will admit that I was wary during these pages that this would be a novel that worked for me, but I am so glad I kept going. Because when Clara’s character takes her turn telling the story, all at once the novel is injected with a furious momentum and energy, the writing in these chapters so artful and confident, and it charges the remainder of the book with narrative magic. And we see that these characters find ways to support each other, to save themselves, to keep going and try to survive and thrive. And sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they don’t.

The point of a book with five protagonists is that there is never just one story, or maybe that one story turns into a different story for every kind of person. This novel also complicates the idea of survival, which is more meaningful in theory than practice, a process that never ends, and which can be impossible. Many of us readers like tidy endings, a story of healing, resolution, but for those who carry the traumatic legacy of residential schools, there is often no such thing. Because how does one reconcile the irreconcilable?

But the end of the book, these characters were firmly lodged in my head, their voices, their connections, their pain and their joys. Powerful and deeply felt, Five Little Indians is both a good read and a literary achievement.

June 17, 2020

The Last Goldfish and In the Shade

“Good reviews…prompt me to borrow a recently-published book on grief from the library. I read the acknowledgements, glance at the author’s photo, and skim the table of contents. Partner, child, parent. Not a word about friends, which causes me to toss it onto the pile of books on my night table.” —Marg Heidebrecht, In the Shade

Thankfully, there is no reason related to my own life for me to pick up two books on friendship and grief, except that they’ve both come out this spring, and also friendship has been on my mind of late. Back in March, it was telephone calls to my closest friends that brought me solace in moments of stress, and my two best friends from high school in particular, friendships whose foundations were born on the telephone, long and pointless conversation, spiral cords wrapped around our fingers, until our parents would finally get on the line, and yell at us to get off.

It’s these connections that Anita Lahey conjures in her new memoir, The Last Goldfish, a monument to friendship and to her friend Louisa who died of cancer when they were 22. A friendship that begin in Grade 9 French class, and persisted through high school in the early 1990s, one’s teen years enriched with so much possibility because of friends, the doors they open for us. For Lahey, Louisa was it, a sparkly personality, with divorced parents who didn’t go to church. But soon their families were each other’s, and they would both go off to university together in Toronto, living together in a co-op dorm at Ryerson, studying journalism. Dealing with other roommates, boyfriends, school and family drama, and also Louisa’s health problems, which would stay in the background for many years, numerous lumps removed from different parts of her body from childhood. Until finally she is diagnosed with cancer, and Lahey continues to be part of her friend’s life, keeping her company during hospital stays and treatments, the hospitals just a stone’s throw away from where they lived and worked, and life goes on. Louisa works at the Eaton’s Centre, Anita at a bookshop across the street, and she gorgeously captures the spirit of the time, of youth and possibility, of life in the city.

When Louisa’s condition worsens, she decides to leave school, and ultimately moves to Vancouver to live with her boyfriend, and Lahey consoles herself that it’s like practice, that she’ll be losing her friend before she actually loses her. Lahey herself on the cusp of her whole life, as her friend is on the verge of losing hers, and she explores this strange conjunction 25 years later, how impossible it was to understand it then or even now.

The connection is different in Marg Heidebrecht’s collection of essays, In the Shade: Friendship, Loss and the Bruce Trail. Heidebrecht and Pam have known each other for years, part of the same community, circles of children. But now the children are grown, and the women are contemplating new horizons. Pam, upon retirement, declares her intention to hike the Bruce Trail, 885 kilometres stretching across southern Ontario, and Heidebrecht decides to join her, the two friends venturing out together and reaching their goal in pieces, over the course of four years. Shortly after their accomplishment, Pam is diagnosed with cancer, and Heidebrecht’s book is a memorial to their friendship, to the power and fortitude of women at midlife, and to the wonders of nature and rewards of walking and hiking. The essays are rich and funny, language sparkling, and the storytelling marvelous, packed with practical advice (stow your water bottles in each other’s backpack side-pockets=GENIUS), amusing anecdotes, and tales of the mistakes and misadventures essential to any journey being memorable.

I loved both these books, which are books about grief, but which are uplifting for the way they capture what is lost, just why the weight of grief is so enormous. Celebrations of women’s friendship, both of them, the kinds of stories that aren’t enough told.

June 11, 2020

The Heart Beats in Secret, by Katie Munnik

There is a convention to covers of books by women, and the cover for Cardiff-based Canadian Katie Munnik’s debut novel The Heart Beats in Secret fits that bill. A woman shot from behind, a dress to suggest the domestic, the house in the distance—and even the title with its secret. A reader might think that they’ve read this book before…but stay with me. What if I told you that Munnik considers among the essential literary companions in her creation of this book not only Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, but Basho’s haiku? Or that the house in the distance on the cover is haunted by a wild goose?

Not literally haunted, of course, because the goose is living, and Pidge, who has inherited the house on the east coast of Scotland after her grandmother’s death, discovers it in the kitchen. Which makes it difficult for her to perform the task at hand, namely to get the house cleaned out and ready to sell before she heads back to her home in Canada. But then the goose is not the sole distraction—there is a relationship back in Ottawa that Pidge seems ambivalent about, plus the potential for secrets to be discovered amongst her grandmother’s things, for questions to be finally answered.

The narrative moves between Pidge in 2006; her grandmother Jane in 1940 who has just wed a husband who has gone to war, new to a village where she knows no one; and Jane’s daughter, Pidge’s mother, a nurse who immigrates to Montreal during the later 1960s and becomes part of a community supporting midwifery in the Quebec wilderness, arriving at motherhood also along the way. Each of them women venturing into the unknown, connected to each other, but also on her own, a pioneer. Their narratives far from nesting dolls, fitting into one another tidily, but something very different. As Munnik writes in her Launchpad post on 49thShelf, “Because my story plays with the shifting sands of family memory, I discovered I could play with non-chronological detailing, letting the characters and reader learn about events or motivations in different orders…In that way, writing a novel could be like writing a poem.”

This story is slow and quiet, an altogether pleasant read, but this also makes the novel’s interestingness easy to undermine. The strange ways that the three narratives fit together, the inherent mystery in the text, that the answers never turned out to be what I thought they were going to be. For a story so entrenched in the domestic, it’s really not conventional in the slightest. And the storyline of Jane during WW2 was especially resonant to me as I read it during our own anxious times:

“It feels close to the end now, but the end of my tether or the end of the world, I can’t know.”

June 1, 2020

From My Mother’s Back, by Njoki Wane

Want to support a Black Canadian writer releasing a book this spring? Pick up Njoki Wane’s rich and generous memoir From My Mother’s Back, a story that weaves her childhood in rural Kenya with her current experiences as a professor at the University of Toronto, showing the long journey she took to meet her goals, but also how these two parts of her life are deeply connected, and informed by her strong bond with her siblings, her parents, especially her mother, and her ancestors.

Wane writes about the view from her mother’s back as her mother showed her the world, about losing her name and connection to her culture as she attended Catholic boarding school, her passion for learning and teaching, and what it means to be Black in Canada (“It’s like there’s a story written on my skin that I’m not allowed to read.”)

There is wisdom here, as Wane writes of overcoming hardship and also of her struggles. “These are the moments that shape us; these are the memories that carve our future from the woodwork of possibility. Struggle and challenge, appreciation and gratitude narrow our focus define our values and provide us with stillness necessary for grounding.”

It’s a wonderful, inspiring and hopeful read.

May 21, 2020

The Wild Heavens, by Sarah Louise Butler

I was describing Sarah Louise Butler’s debut novel The Wild Heavens last week as, “Like Contact, but about sasquatches.” A novel set in the BC interior that begins with tracks in the snow, tracks that—in the book’s exquisitely written introduction—persuade a man to reroute his life, from the seminary to pursue a career in science, to explore the mysteries suggested by these outsized man-shaped footprints. Faith vs. science, but the dichotomy turned inside out, and what of mythology? The fact of proof. Maybe it was never really such a dichotomy after all.

The man in the introduction is Aiden Fitzpatrick, through the centre of the story is his granddaughter Sandy who comes to live with him after her mother dies, being raised in their isolated cabin in the wilderness where he continues to search for proof of the creature, one who is never directly named in the book, but they call him “Charlie.” Charlie becoming a projection of each characters’ own fascinations, questions and preoccupations. Sandy grows up in the company of a young boy whose mother has found safety on the remote property, hiding from her son’s abusive father. And in some ways, it’s an idyllic way to live, surrounded by love and so much natural beauty, but there are also questions that have no answers, unspoken longings and so much grief.

The novel takes place over the course of a single day as Sandy—now a widow, a mother in her fifties—sets out to finally discover the truth about the creature after discovering its tracks in the snow after so many years. Interspersed between her risky quest to find it are her recollections of her childhood, growing up with her grandfather, falling in love, becoming a wife and mother, enduring loss and heartache, and the draw of the landscape, that creature who’s ever-elusive. And as ever, it’s less about the finding than the searching, about the wonder instead of answers, about the stories we tell about the mysteries both of ourselves and of the world.

May 7, 2020

Writers & Lovers, by Lily King

I was a bit wary of Writers & Lovers, by Lily King. I’d read her previous book, Euphoria, and I remember finding it a bit wanting (I am in the minority in this assessment), but then Maria Semple recommended this new novel on Instagram, and Maria Semple is a person I trust. I started reading it though, and thought: this is a novel that I’ve read before. The young woman who can’t get her life together, hold her liquor and whole makes terrible choices (see The Dud Avocado, Bridget Jones Diary) meets Lucky Jim, but for girls (and it’s different for girls) meets the MFA novel (any work of fiction that references Breadloaf, except for Ducks, Newburyport). “I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say,” our narrator is told on the second page, by the man who owns the property where Casey rents a potting shed that stinks of mould. She bakes cookies in a toaster oven, and almost everyone she ever knew who was a writer has gotten married and/or gone to law school. Casey is 31.

But I haven’t actually read this book before, unless you count Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse where Lily Briscoe realizes her vision. Is Casey a fool or not to believe that she can make it as a writer, that the struggle is worth it, six whole years on a novel that maybe nobody will ever read? She makes money waiting tables at a restaurant in Harvard Square, she’s up to her eyeballs in debt and regret and heartache, and desperately mourning the death of her mother. An older writer (a widow with two young children) invites her into his orbit, clearly with domestic intentions, and maybe this is the answer to all her problems, but there is also the other guy, the one with whom the spark is undeniable—but right before their first date, he took off across the country on his motorcycle.

I am unaccustomed to reading about a woman who is flawed and who takes her art seriously, and I am unaccustomed to art that treats such a woman seriously, instead of as the butt of a joke. The book begins in familiar territory but then takes its reader to unexpected places, to previously unexplored terrain. How do you know you’re going to make it, until you make it, and it reminded me of reading Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, the two of them starting out in their careers, writing to save their own lives. And there’s a lightness to the tone that is possibly deceptive, that any story that’s such a delight to behold must necessarily be less than profound. That any woman who fails to be a perfect candidate must necessarily fail to triumph.

I loved this book, set in 1997, back you had to look up literary agents in guides at the library, and spend your last dollars mailing out your manuscript to the lot of them. A book that, as I said, begins in familiar territory, the usual tropes—the douchebag writer guy who’ll break your heart, the writer waiting tables, the possibly creepy mentor, the writer friend with whom one is in unspoken competition. But this portrait of the artist as a no-longer-young woman does something different and novel with all of these pieces, which is why the story so comes alive on the page.

May 5, 2020

A Match Made for Murder, by Iona Whishaw

If you’ve ever wondered just how much they have to pay me to love the Lane Winslow mystery series as much as I do…the answer is nothing. And never has there been a series quite so easy to love, a series of books that has done wonders for my reputation as a person with good literary instincts, because everyone I recommend the series to loves them too, and that I get to receive a tiny bit of credit for that is marvellous luck. To have any kind of proximity to Lane Winslow is really a wondrous thing.

It never disappoints, this series, whose seventh installment is A Match Made For Murder, and Iona Whishaw has taken her heroine and her new husband on honeymoon to Tucson, Arizona. But first I’ll catch you up a bit, if you’re new to King’s Cove, the small village outside of Nelson, BC, where Lane Winslow—young, brilliant, beautiful, looking for a quiet life after spending WW2 spying for the British—retires in search of a quieter life, but she’s just got this knack for stumbling over bodies. Which brings her close to the handsome Inspector Darling—although in the first book, he’s arresting her on suspicion of murder. All that’s sorted out now, however, and the wedding has finally happened. On her honeymoon, at least, will Lane finally get the rest and relaxation she’s been seeking for the past two years?

But just while Lane is settled onto a lounge chair by the pool, reading a book (Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers, naturally!), a shot rings out, and it won’t be the last one fired before the book is over. It turns out that Lane and Darling are surrounded by couples with complicated arrangements, mob connections, and possibly murderous intentions. Meanwhile, back in King’s Cove, Ames is left to unravel a curious case involving a dead man whose reputation for interfering with teenage girls goes back at least a decade, and when the woman he fancies turns out to have a connection to him, he struggles to retain his impartiality.

As always with Whishaw’s books, the novel is a delight, charming and funny, cozy and enveloping—by page 7, there are already scones. It’s also a wonderful literary homage to the classics of detective fiction, and I love that Nelson, BC, comes with its very own Baker Street. But coziness is not even the half of it—the series takes on race and racism (in this latest book, Nelson has its first Black police officer and Ames comes to understand that he gets to be regarded as an individual, while his colleague is forever representing an entire race), and misogyny, rape and spousal abuse all factor in this story, which is strongly concerned with the enormous power that men had at the time (and still have now) to control the women in their lives, and also with their sense of entitlement to that control. It’s an idea that is present in both Lane and Darling’s minds as they contemplate how their relationship might be different now that they are married—but then neither of them has ever had much taste for convention.

Lane Winslow, of course, will be keeping her name.

I will be co-hosting Iona Whishaw’s virtual book lunch tomorrow night (Wednesday May 6, 7:00 Eastern). I hope you can join us!

And here is Iona Whishaw reading from her new novel as part of 49thShelfLAUNCHPAD.

May 4, 2020

Open House, by Jane Christmas

Something that truly shocks me are the number of attractive book covers identical in palette to my hideous bathroom, a bathroom whose hideousness I can blame on the fact that I don’t own a house, have never bought a house. The pink tiles and green blue tub are not something I ever would have chosen, but I have grown comfortable with them (and with the mildewed grouting) because it’s been home for 12 years now, and we live very comfortably here with rent that’s as affordable as my bathroom is ugly. (Which is to say: VERY)

But I have always been fascinated by houses, and how people live inside them, which is why I peruse real estate listings for fun, which is how I discovered my childhood home is currently for sale, and spent Friday morning virtually touring the place as in a dream. Which is why I was also a fan of the British property show Location Location Location when I lived in England, a nation whose sense of house and home is peculiar and fascinating, and felt very proud to rent a terrace house of my own (albeit just a two-up two-down, with nary a bay window), a photo of which hangs in my living room today (naturally with the bins out front). All of which makes me an ideal reader for Open House, Canadian Jane Christmas’s memoir of an extensive renovation on a Victorian terrace in Bristol she purchased with her third husband after their dream of living in a seaside town was scuppered by a variety of factors including SEAGULLS. Throughout the book, she examines her propensity for moving (she has moved 32 times!), her peripatetic childhood (and her many childhood homes in suburban Toronto, her marital homes, the places she lived in gritty 1980s Hamilton as a single mother.

The book has all the appeal of MLS listings, but with stories that don’t need to be guessed at. Instead, with characteristic candour, humour and flair, Christmas strips her life to the studs, and ruminates fascinatingly on notions of home and the places where we make them.

May 1, 2020

Actress, by Anne Enright

I find Anne Enright difficult, but not in the way I find other writers difficult. Which is so much so that I have absolutely no desire to read them, because life is difficult enough. But the work is usually worth it with Anne Enright, whose books are strange and beguiling, although ordinary at first glance—although I didn’t love her most recent The Green Road so much, a novel that was interesting that never really hung together in the way I wanted it to. For me, Actress was more satisfying, but also strange and disorienting, which isn’t a bad thing for a novel. Uncanny: to be both at home and not at home.

It’s the kind of book that’s just so specific, the kind of book of which you can’t say “it’s the kind of book…” at all otherwise. It’s so specific that’s difficult to fully comprehend that this is fiction, that Enright made the whole thing up, the singularly personality and career of Katherine O’Dell, the Irish theatre legend, her story told by her daughter, Norah, who grew up in her mother’s shadow, but this experience too is singular, as human experiences are. This is no Mommie Dearest, is what I mean. It’s so richly imagined and then filtered through the lens of Norah’s perspective, who’s missing half the details. A story by a daughter of her mother that is not a story of neglect or a litany of grievances, though there are some of these, but no more than with any human being. A different kind of take on mothers and daughters, that one can regard the other as a human being—albeit a complicated and flawed one, one who was eventually admitted to a psychiatric hospital after shooting a producer in the foot (which was less funny than it sounds—the injury caused torture for the rest of his days).

I appreciated this novel more after having read Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe, which filled in my understanding of The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, though this part of the story is peripheral in The Actress. Intentionally so, because there are many things that Norah doesn’t want to know about her mother. But the part that resonated for me as I read this book in April 2020:

A funny thing happens when the world turns, as it turned for us on the night we burned the British embassy down. You wake up the next morning and carry on.

Anne Enright, The Acress

April 23, 2020

Misconduct of the Heart, by Cordelia Strube

I was nervous about this book, and if you’ve ever read Cordelia Strube you’ll understand. Cordelia Strube whose previous novel was On the Margins of These Pages, There is Heartbreak, or at least it might as well have been. (The book was actually On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, it was one of my favourite books of 2016, and won the Toronto Book Award.) But my capacity for heartbreak is so currently occupied at the moment by everything, and I can’t take any more. So I went into this warily, is what I’m saying, like the book itself was an unreliable teenage boyfriend. “Here’s my heart, Cordelia Strube,” is what I was thinking. “Be careful, please.”

Misconduct of the Heart is not a feel-good comedy. Narrator Stevie is currently sandwiched between violent assaults by her son who returned from Afghanistan with PTSD and the demands of her aging parents (her mother assaults their personal support worker and her father shits his pants), all the while Stevie herself has trauma that she’s never properly processed or admitted to anyone. She became pregnant with her son after a violent gang rape when she was a teenager, and was never able to show him affection—though her own mother and father weren’t stand-out examples of parenting either, so did anyone ever have a chance?

But they do, which is the point of this book, which is as funny as it’s dark. Populated by the characters who work at Chappy’s, the weathered franchise restaurant in suburban Toronto where Stevie works as kitchen manager, and if you’ve ever worked in a kitchen, you’ll recognize the scene. High stress, as if Stevie needs any more—but then someone drops off a child who might be the daughter of her son, and here Stevie sees the possibility of something. Redemption? Could this troubled world ever give her that much?

This is not a feel-good comedy at all, but oh it’s so richly funny. Funny in the way the world is, absurd, preposterous, sad and hilarious. “You can’t make this stuff up,” kind of funny, which is funny because Strube does, and it’s wonderful. And even feel-good, because there is hope and there is triumph, and the reader is rooting for every single one of these lovable losers to finally win.

It’s a slow build, this book, and first 100 pages are tough—the narrative is a bit disorienting, we’re not sure why we care about any of these people yet, and the story of Stevie’s past and what happened to her son is really brutal. But the reader should persist because once the story picks up, the payoff is huge, such an unrelenting kernel of light and love. There is nobody else who writes like Cordelia Strube, and this is one of my favourite books of the year.

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