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Pickle Me This

November 27, 2014

Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome by Megan Gail Coles

eating-habitsMy reading rut from last week was successfully defeated by the books I picked up at the Toronto Book Fair, in particular Megan Gail Coles’ Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome, which was the book I bought because I kept seeing other people walking around carrying it. In some crowds, such a method of book selection could steer one wrong, but not in this one. The book was fantastic, a collection of short stories about Newfoundlanders at home and away. The characters in the stories have lives that are linked, but the connections are loose, and stories take place across a long period of time, so that the connections vaguely inform one another rather than being integral to the collections’ construction. They do give a wonderful sense of these characters’ lives off the page being rich and ongoing, the stories themselves just standing in for a moment in time.

Coles, whose background is in theatre and playwriting, is the real thing. Deft with prose, gifted with voices, writing from a wry, wise and empathetic perspective, she is undoubtedly part of the established tradition of fine Newfound short story-writing.

In “There are Tears in This Coconut”, two fractious sisters take a trip together to Thailand following the eldest’s divorce, a lifetime of resentment and anger acted out on the part of each of them.

“Everyone Starves to Death As I Eat Here” begins with the shining line, “Damon thinks, this, everything, is Brenda Hann’s fault for making him believe her pussy was made of gold.”

And then a few pages after, “The reason Garry did these things was ’cause he couldn’t afford any better. Half of what he earned over at Pretty Paws was carted off to Newfoundland. Child support for an autistic kid he had with Slutty Marie down Gilbert Street, this the result of a one night stand./ Have you ever heard a sadder story, Dame? I mean, really? I barely poked her. We weren’t even lying down. It’s like her body sucked me sperm right inside her that night, vacuum cunt on her. Don’t ever have a go at the neighbourhood whore in an alley. Nothing good will come of it.”

And then in the next story, Nigerian immigrant to Newfoundland working at Tim Hortons woos a local woman and thinks his life is made, the story ending on the suggestion that this is perhaps not the case. Time telescopes in “A Sink Built for Small People,” which is next, in which a couple moves to Korea to teach English and their relationship (predictably) falls apart. A new mother laments what’s become of her life in “I Will Hate Everything, Later.”

A widower wonders about his shaky domestic life with a new partner: “I think washing up the supper dishes shows I care. I always flushes the toilet three times. And I knows that’s more than Father ever did. She says that’s gross. Not like in her books. That my love is vulgar. Not refined. Not civilized. I’m rural in my heart. She plans the birthday party she’d like. I does the same. We always ends up with the wrong birthday party. And we aren’t young.”  We always ends up with the wrong birthday party—isn’t that some kind of amazing definition of a tragedy?

A woman navigates the terrain of a new life, after breaking up with the man she’d thrown away her twenties on in “This Empty House is Full of Furniture.” Another contemplates the circumstances that led her to homelessness and vagrancy in “French Kissing is For Teenagers.” “Single Gals Need All Wheel Drive” is one of the best stories I’ve ever read about a character with cancer. A Haitian immigrant to Montreal plots a future with her dodgy landlord in “There’s a Fish Hook In your Lip.” “Ultimatums Grow In This Wild Place” returns us to first story, this one written from the perspective of the divorced sister’s ex as he prepares to end their marriage (and have her finally face the fact that he’s gay).

And then “A Dog is Not a Baby”, which is simply the thoughts going through a an elderly mother/grandmother’s mind as she waits for the phone to ring, for one of her children or grandchildren to call: “If she starts thinking on how the phone never rings now, she won’t be able to be conversational when it finally does. Instead, she’ll respond with a series of grunts. Maybe make an off-handed remark on how she might as well be dead. Tiffany will feel guilty, her mother Margaret won’t even notice, and Joss will say, it’s a wonder anyone calls her at all. / What would anyone want to call you for? You never got anything pleasant to say sure.”

The stories in “Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome” are also linked by references to food, to hunger and indulgence, flimsy plastic forks and years ago when spinach was rare. Vivid, mordant and moving, they’re about connection and disconnections, and the ways in which we hurt and heal ourselves, and each other.

November 23, 2014

Hot, Wet and Shaking by Kaleigh Trace

hot-wet-and-shakingThe news of three individuals engaging in sexual activity on a streetcar on Thursday night (the King car, even! At rush hour, no less!) resulted in an interesting dinner conversation at our house the other night, leading us to reminisce about the couple who were caught having sex on the Spadina Station subway platform a few years ago (on the north-south line—it’s less busy and the brown circular tiles made for an interesting backdrop in the film of the event, which I watched. So did everyone). We were also wondering how you stage a threesome or any sexual act at all when everyone involved is (presumably) wearing winter coats—Thursday was cold!

“What’s sex?” asked Harriet, who knows where babies come from, but it’s always been a more theoretical concept than something involving actual bodies. And public transit.

It was a moment. Stuart and I looked at each other. I would take this one.

“It’s something that grown-ups do,” I told her. “To make babies, or just for fun. But they should not be doing it on the subway platform. And don’t you forget it.”

Mostly that anecdote is unrelated to Kaleigh Trace’s book, Hot, Wet & Shaking: How I Learned to Talk About Sex, except that I started reading it a few hours after that dinner conversation, and I’m recounting it because it’s a conversation that should go down in history as one of my all-time best parenting successes. I didn’t even miss a beat.

*****

Kaleigh Trace is a sex expert, a person who happens to pull a giant dildo out of her bag in line at the supermarket check-out when she’s fumbling for her wallet. But her book is less a sex guide than a memoir of how she came to be a woman with a dick in her bag, which might have seemed unlikely considering the unsatisfactory nature of her early sexual experiences (which are probably pretty similar to a lot of your early sexual experiences). Her own view of her sexuality is made more complicated by a physical disability resulting from a childhood spinal cord injury—the standard sexual techniques don’t work for her; after years as a patient with whom so much was “wrong”, she has difficulty imagining her body as a vehicle for sexual pleasure.

But the thing about her disability, about “the standard sexual techniques” not working for her is that she’s driven to find the ones that do. To realize that it’s not her body that’s the problem, but instead a rigid view of sexuality defined by lurid billboards and misogyny and internet porn, a view of sexuality that would have us supposing that disabled people (or fat people; or people of colour; or queer people; or old people; or people who aren’t photoshopped) don’t actually exist, or have sex. This is what happens when we don’t talk about sex (on streetcars, or otherwise): other people get to set the terms of sex and sexuality, usually at the expense of one’s own liberty and/or self-esteem.

So Trace’s is a lesson that’s no less valuable to an able-bodied person—that one has to be open to exploring one’s own sexuality on one’s own terms and seeking to discover what works for them, because it turns out that sex isn’t prescribed after all, and everybody/ every body is different. Trace begins to learn this lesson when she finds work at Venus Envy, a Halifax sex shop, a place she is attracted to in the beginning for its wealth of books—new fiction, feminist publications, cultural critiques. Eventually she gets the nerve to venture beyond the book shelves, however, and realizes the world of sexuality is more complicated, messier, and more excellent than she’d ever imagined.

Fitting, for someone with a body, Trace’s identity as a disabled person is connected to her sexuality. She writes of parallel journeys to embrace the queer and disabled labels (the latter which in particular she had spent most of her life pushing up against):

“The labels queer and disabled fit well together and I am honoured to hold them both. They fit together because they both involved resistance. Resistance against those tired ideas of what and how one should be, resistance against presumed and ill-fitting “truths” about the world. In this resistance, both of these words work to create a much-needed space. Space for bodies to be valued in an of themselves space for beauty and love to be redefined.”

There is such generosity to be found in the pages of Hot, Wet and Shaking. Trace’s remarkable and long-sought generosity toward herself, for one thing, which readers should be inspired to embrace in their own experiences. But also generosity too toward her reader, in Trace sharing what she has learned won through her own experiences, her vulnerabilities too, her processes of overcoming (which are, as for all of us, never ending). She’s not just talking about sex, but also talking about language, about being in the world, as a woman, as a person with a disability, a daughter, a girlfriend, a friend. Included in the book also is the story of her abortion, which makes sense because of how abortion is part of so many women’s experiences of sex and being in the world, and the story is important because every time such a story gets told, it becomes clear that abortion isn’t an unspeakable word after all—according to Trace, there are no such things—and that it’s a procedure that happens all the time. As with sex, when we don’t talk about these things, the parameters get set by somebody else and this is dangerous. We all have to have more of a willingness to look life in the eye, and in her candour, her intelligence and sense of justice, Kaleigh Trace is such an inspiration.

Hot, Wet and Shaking is based on Trace’s blog, “The Fucking Facts“, its prose revealing such origins with the very best of what blogs have to offer—the incredible resonance of a single human voice. It’s a funny, fast and absorbing read; powerful, empowering, and so important.

November 18, 2014

For Your Safety Please Hold On by Kayla Czaga

for-your-safety-please-hold-onI’ve written about how I’m learning to be more patient with poetry, but I still relish the experience of a poetry collection I find devourable. Kayla Czaga’s remarkable debut, For Your Safety Please Hold On, begins with “Mother and Father,” a series of poems that journey through a particularly specific set of family albums. Lines like, “My father is more like a poem than most poems/ are. He once tucked a living loon into his coat…” from “Another Poem About My Father.” A narrative arc emerges—the father is an immigrant from Hungary, the mother suffers from serious health problems, and the edges are blurry, but the fine details so clear.

In “The Family,” the poet half-steps away from biography to explore family archetypes in the second-person. “Snapdragons, wild garlic, her loose arms/ hugging closed her cardigans, touring/ you around her garden. You visited her/ for two weeks each summer. How strange/ you must’ve seemed, taller every time,/ a girl perhaps she hardly recognized/ except for her daughter’s eyes planted/ into your face…” from “The Grandmother.” Or “The Drunk Uncle”: “wears the same old skill T-shirts for thirty years.”

The collection veers away from narrative in the next section, “For Play,” though we’re still in the same nostalgic terrain (an entire poem inspired by Math Minute assignments!) but the poems are less concrete here, the words the point more than the story they tell. For your safety please hold on, indeed.

And then in “Many Metaphoric Birds,” they take flight, philosophical realms, and I don’t really get it, but that’s okay.

It’s a really wonderful collection.

November 13, 2014

Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel

vacant-possessionI so much loved spending a weekend reading Hilary Mantel two weeks ago that I decided to do it again last weekend with Vacant Possession. It’s the sequel to the brilliantly funny Every Day is Mother’s Day, which was Mantel’s first published novel and one of the first Hilary Mantel books I ever read (around the time Beyond Black came out). While I love Mantel’s writing and she’s always amazing, her enormous range (domestic fiction, the fantastic, historical epics) means that not everything she writes appeals to me. I struggled through Wolf Hall, and that’s it for me for the Cromwell trilogy, but the upside to its Booker success is that Vacant Possession—the sequel to Every Day is Mother’s Day—is in print now, whereas it wasn’t in 2006.

And it’s so wonderful. It takes place in Thatcher’s Britain, 1984. The nefarious Muriel Axon has been released from her institution ten years after the mysterious death of her horrible mother, and she’s determined to seek revenge upon those she feels wronged her all those years ago—namely her former social worker, Isobel Field, and Isobel’s old lover, Colin Sidney, who has since reconciled with his wife and moved into Muriel’s old home. Her move from institutional care to “care in the community” is part of a downloading of government services typical of the time (and our time too), and Mantel paints its consequences in a way that is as hilarious as it is chilling—and it’s only hilarious until you realize how close to life this satire is drawn. Such terrible stupid people, and Mantel is unafraid to paint them as such, which is funny until you realize you’re probably laughing at yourself.

But it is funny, and fiercely political, fearless, and smart and wonderfully written. Really, a single book can be this good, and hilarious escape and a punch in the gut all at once. Proving we really do need to set our standards for fiction higher, I think, so why not start here. Right now. Go.

November 9, 2014

Mr. Jones by Margaret Sweatman

mr-jonesSo on Thursday night, I was at the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards, sitting up the in the balcony (because the seats on the main floor had been filled while we were still out in the lobby getting that one last glass of wine), and the program was great—wonderful books celebrated, Shelagh Rogers was the host—but there I was reading a novel. Which is a shameful confession, as usual, my complete and utter failure to be in the moment, but what you have to understand about the moment was that I was on the final 100 pages of Margaret Sweatman’s Mr. Jones. A spy novel, no less, intrigue upon intrigue—and upon even more intrigue by that final stretch. How was I supposed to be doing anything else? And something more to understand: this isn’t a small book. A 500 page thick hardback, and I brought it in my purse. Which tells you everything, really. Mr. Jones is an electric, compelling, scintillating read.

endpapersOk, it’s 500 pages, but these are small pages—perhaps a bit too small? 500 narrowish pages are tough to get a grip on, so I dropped the book a few times. It was hard to hold open with my feet. (Does this count as legitimate criticism?) Apart from these niggling details, the book is of stunning design, so gorgeous. Check out the end papers. The prose just as appealing from an aesthetic point of view, all comma splices and curious sentences. The effect of the book as a whole slightly dizzying, as perspective moves 360 degrees, from character to character, but only in pieces. We never see it all at once until it all comes together at the end. Hence the last 100 pages, and my furtive reading in the auditorium balcony in the dark.

It’s a period piece, the spy novel ala Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana. Emmett Jones is Canadian, a World War Two Bomber Commander disillusioned by his wartime deeds and adrift in post-war Toronto. Attending university, he finds himself attracted to John Norfield, a charismatic figure with Communist sympathies, in which Emmett too becomes embroiled, partly out of a need to belong to something, and because of how he is drawn to Norfield (and Norfield’s sometime girlfriend, Toronto deb Suzanne).

We first meet Jones in 1953, a civil servant in External Affairs, post-Gouzenko and the Cold War (and McCarthy) heating up, and he’s under investigation with the RCMP for possible Communist connections. Emmett is now married to Suzanne, with a young daughter, and Norfield is a distant figure in their past—or so the Jones’ pretend as they attempt an idyllic 1950s life. But there are complications. Jones had fathered a son in Japan, where he was stationed in the late 1940s, and his own background (born and raised to Canadians in Japan) makes him a mysterious figure in the Civil Service, particularly as troubles in Vietnam are beginning and all things Oriental are viewed with suspicion (Asia seemingly a monolith vulnerable to to a Communist sweep). Suzanne too has trouble fitting into a cookie-cutter life, her subversive photography revealing her interests in a way that won’t necessarily be helpful for her husband’s career.

And there are other matters we see, as Sweatman moves us back and forth in time, through the 1940s and 1950s, when politics were complicated and nothing was ever quite as it seemed. There is no whole truth, we begin to understand, but only parts of a truth, and they come together to form a puzzle whose final pieces are harrowing and powerful. A Cold War spy novel with a Canadian bent—and a beautiful one to boot. A rare bird after all, Mr. Jones is, just like Jones himself is, perplexing, enigmatic, mysterious, and so intriguingly aloof.

November 4, 2014

Short Cuts: Hilary Mantel and Martha Baillie

mantelCould I have chosen a better book to pick up on Halloween than Hilary Mantel’s new short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher? Just check out that cover? And no surprise that ghosts pervade the stories in the book, since this is the author of Beyond Black. A woman whose memoir was called Giving Up the Ghost after all (though she hasn’t altogether). I am just a bit Hilary Mantel mad, but I can’t bear enormous historical novels, and so I was quite thrilled about this new book, contemporary Hilary Mantel, the kind I like the very best. And the stories were terrific, the writing exquisite. Lines like, “Then her hands opened. The floor was limestone and the glass exploded.” What writer would set it up that way? Mantel is so smart, so sly. Such deviousness. I love her. Oliver Cromwell, I could take him or leave, but Hilary Mantel in the here and now.

Or at the least in the early 1980s, moments before Thatcher meets her fate: “Who has not seen the door in the wall?… [N]ote the door: note the wall: note the power of the door in the wall that you never saw was there. And note the cold wind the blows through it, when you open it a crack. History could always have been otherwise…”

*****

heinrich-schlogelAnother weird and wonderful book is The Search for Heinrich Schlogel by Martha Baillie, whose Giller-nominated The Incident Report was one of my favourite books of 2009. The new novel comes from a similarly curious sensibility, seemingly created by an archivist with uncanny access to the materials comprising the life of Schlogel, a man who is unremarkable in a number of ways, except that he slips through a hole in time while hiking through the Arctic in 1980, and reemerges 30 years later. Not to even any real end either, and he keeps slipping through our archivist’s fingers (and our own). I enjoyed the book, though also found it at a distance (as it was meant to be), but was compelled throughout the narrative by the strangeness and Baillie’s beautiful writing. It left me baffled, but cast a spell.

November 2, 2014

On Uncertainty, Mistakes, and Accidental Cake

kalman_uncertaintyTomorrow night in my blogging course, we will be discussing Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”, which really might be one of my favourite pieces of writing ever, and whose wisdom is remarkably applicable to blogging, as well as to life itself. “To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.”

So I’ve been rereading the essay, following its twists and turns (and thinking about how much the public streets walked by Woolf’s narrator in “Street Haunting” can stand in for the blogosphere, “a form of society that doesn’t enforce identity but liberates it, the society of strangers, the republic of the streets, the experience of being anonymous and free that big cities invented”).

And then there was an excursion to Kensington Market to purchase not a pencil, but boots for the grown-ups in our family, because the shop there that caters to Portuguese construction workers is the best place we know to buy new Sorels. This was yesterday, and we’d woken up to flurries, so it seemed essential that we buy boots immediately. Plus while in the market, we’d get to pick up wood-smoked bagels and sausages from Sanagans for our evening meal. Once the boots were bought, Stuart with stroller was sent on the bagel errand, while Harriet and I took a quick diversion into Good Egg to scope out potential birthday presents for him.

Where I found this book, Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty, based on her illustrated New York Times column. I’d never read the column, but I had been reading Solnit’s essay, which references Kalman’s work, her art, this book. And here was the book in my hands, so I had to have it. I came out of the shop with a stack of books, but pleased with myself. “Only one of these is for me.”

When I got home and went through the Solnit essay again, however, I found that I’d been mistaken. While a section of “Woolf’s Darkness” indeed shares a title with Kalman’s book, Solnit doesn’t mention Kalman at all. I’d made the whole thing up. I’d bought the book by accident. Which was kind of interesting to me, because I am so interested in the connections between books, how they speak to one another, and now I’m fascinated too by the idea of the mistaken allusion, the connection that was never there at all. But now it is, because I supposed it was. Our reading lives are such a tangled web.

 

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All was not lost though. While Kalman’s book was far from Solnit’s essay (though for me, the two shall be linked forevermore—and they’re actually interesting companions), the book was wonderful. It was as though my mistaken allusion had been a trick to get The Principles of Uncertainty into my hands, where it had belonged all the while.

Full of gorgeous images, funny stories, curious questions, and delightful things. It has an index, as all the best books do, and an appendix with images of postcard collections (one of postcards with waterfalls), collected food packets, a list of all the characters in The Idiot by Dostoevsky, and the family recipe for the honey cake referenced on page 54:

“The kitchen is small, spare and shiny. We drink tea an eat honey cake in the hot stillness of the afternoon.”

 

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This afternoon, I baked that cake with Harriet, because today had an extra hour within and there was space for such a thing. We had to borrow a bundt pan from our neighbour, Sarit, because we don’t have a bundt pan even though I thought we did. It seems there is no limit to what I’m capable of remembering wrong.

We had a good time baking—it is much less frustrating baking with Harriet now than when she was three and compelled to stick her hands in the batter (and she sneezes in the bowl hardly ever now). I explained to her that we were making a cake from the book that I had bought by mistake, and it’s that a wonderful thing about the universe—that an accidental book can lead to cake in the oven on a sunny afternoon:

“And then the all-clear sounded and people returned, hope undiminished. They returned, so elegant and purposeful to the books. / What does this have to do with bobby pins and radiators and kokoshniks? One thing leads to another.

Then when we were all done, I proceeded to TWICE pick up the bundt pan (which was constructed of two parts) incorrectly, separating the bottom from the sides and batter seeping out onto the table. (“I heard at least two ‘fucks,'” Stuart inquired after. “What went wrong?”) As I spatula’d up the mess, Harriet patiently parroted what I’d been saying to her about the accidental book as we’d baked, that sometimes mistakes lead us in the most interesting directions.

“I don’t know if it’s quite the same with baking,” I confessed, sorry that everything was not so poetic, but perhaps it is, or it’s just that this cake is forgiving, because it was, and the cake was wonderful. Delicious, moist, and a perfect balance of spice and sweet. One thing leading to another indeed, and what good fortune when the thing one’s being led to is cake.

 

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October 28, 2014

Hello, Sweetheart by Elaine McCluskey

hello-sweetheartI love Elaine McCluskey’s short stories, and have been looking forward to her third collection, Hello, Sweetheart, which follows The Watermelon Social and Valery the Great. To begin to read one of McCluskey’s stories is to immediately be struck by the force of her voice, a voice rich with humour, perspective and compassion. Hers is a voice so compelling that it conjures a world, and the reader becomes immersed in that world, entirely on the level with McCluskey’s hapless characters.

They’re hapless, and they’re losers, but she loves them. Their stories are also terrifically funny, even when they’re sad. They’re pure of heart, always. The stories in Hello, Sweetheart take place in Halifax amidst circles that are loosely linked. We begin at the Toy Eros sex shop, where our protagonist has finally landed a job (though she tells her mother she’s working at a bookstore: “Do they know you have three years’ university?” she asks./ “Oh yes,” I lie. “They are very impressed.”) She’s overcome a tragedy that’s not made quite clear, except that it’s resulted in a special kind of clarity: “[W]e all go through life with a great ticking time bomb of tragedy strapped to our chests,” and it’s with this awareness that she regards the curious world she now inhabits.

We all go through life with a great ticking time bomb of tragedy strapped to our chests. For most of McCluskey’s characters, the bomb’s gone off, but this does not mean relinquishing all dignity. I don’t think I’ll be able to explain the point of “Giddy Up,” the man who’s convinced that he used to be a pony, who responds to most inquiries with, “If it doesn’t bother me, then why should it bother you?,” and who manages to draw his own line in the sand and is probably more powerful and free than anyone else in the book is. There’s the man who changes his dog-walking route in order to avoid “the kind of woman who wore rubber boots whether she needed them or not.” An adult woman enrolled in undergraduate courses trying to get over being duped by a guy called Dwayne. A terrifying story that begins with an early morning wake-up and ends with a kidnapping, it all happening so fast that you’ll thumb back through the pages wondering, “How did she take me there?”

“Chez Helene” is a wonderful story in which, like so many of these, the real story is in the subtext, the space between the lines, which is that “people can believe anything they want to. And that’s ok.” (The idea that underlines so many of these stories—this is the definition of compassion.) “Jaw Breakers” is a very McCluskeyian story of a former swim champ whose career trajectory went wrong, and then he begins to lose his father in a curious way, and there goes the ground beneath his feet. Similarly sad is the life of the man falsely accused of sexually abusing children who is then left to make his own way with his shattered reputation—though McCluskey offers him the slightest reprieve from his sorrow.

“Rating Dr. Chestnut” is the story I’ve been waiting for all my life, that which is told through the structure of comments on a RateMyMD.com site. Which is not the only story in the book to engage with life online, other stories with Facebook and text messaging as embedded in the fiction as it is in real life, one even comprising two of those “Ten Things About Me” lists that were uber-memed a few years back. And Margaret, whose whole story takes place in her head as she’s playing a drinking game (alone) while watching Say Yes to the Dress. These are stories that engage so readily with the stuff of the world.

And then the final story, “Hello, Sweetheart,” a story that explains a lot, about grief and mourning, most of the text seemingly delivered from McCluskey to her father shortly after his death. He’s the subject of her second-person narration, and she tells him a story from his funeral. “It was funny, Dad, and you would have laughed. It would have been one of those stories we could have told. Over and over again.”

I finished that last story, shut the book, and clutched it close, and said, “Yes.” The whole project making sense, those stories, the sadness. Some of these stories are a bit rough around the edges, though in McCluskey’s work, form is always secondary to language. There is an exuberance to her work, an energy, that is so compelling to encounter, and there’s nothing else like it, really. She’s one of the best short story writers at work in Canada—which is saying something indeed.

October 19, 2014

Ithaca by Susan Fish

ithaca

Since we’re talking soup—or at least we will be—I’d like to offer the literary ingredients that I’d put to use were I cooking up a novel like Susan Fish’s Ithaca (which I loved). First, half a stack of Barbara Pym novels, since Pym is the original chronicler of the unknown fascinating inner-lives of lonely middle-aged women, particularly those who type indices for academic men. Next, toss in a novel or two by Wallace Stegner, or at least All the Little Live Things and Crossing to Safety, for their depictions of the intimacies of long marriages, late-in-life-garnered insight, and—in the case of the latter book—a cozy look at academic communities. Then season with Barbara Kingsolver, perhaps her most recent, Flight Behaviour, for its illumination of the subtle effects of environmental devastation, and as a portrait of how an activist can be borne of an ordinary woman. Let it simmer. Indeed.

Ithaca is the story of Daisy Turner, whose husband has recently died, leaving her unmoored in a world in which she’d always felt so solidly ensconced. Unquestioningly so. Her husband had been everything to her, their grown son far away living his own life in Singapore, and now with him gone, the sole event on Daisy’s calendar (apart from the trip they’d booked months in advance to celebrate their 40th anniversary—what to do about that now?) is the Wednesday suppers, a longstanding tradition in which her husband’s academic colleagues and students and their families would gather together for friendship and conversation and Daisy’s famous soups. The suppers are all she’s got left now, and she constructs her weeks around them, too ashamed to let anybody know the extent of her grief and loneliness, that Arthur’s death has left her without any solid ground to stand on.

But there is something to be said for unsteadiness, because too much steadiness is to have the world be sure, which it’s not, and something also to be said for how the process of reconstructing a broken life can bring forth growth and change and a new kind of resolve. As with those proverbial butterflies flapping their wings, it all starts with a small thing, Daisy invited by a friend to help harvest honey. The hives bought for his wife years ago, ailing from MS, with the hopes that their royal jelly might succeed where her medicine hasn’t, but it doesn’t and her health has only worsened. She can’t even venture out of her house these days, and so Daisy goes with Henry, instead of his wife, and on the way, she notices the signs protesting “fracking” in their area.

Fracking. She doesn’t know the word, but she understands enough about its context—39 years of marriage to a geologist is some kind of education. Oil companies are planning to drill deep into the shale that surround their community for oil deposits—a proposition that promises to save farms from foreclosure and wreak environmental devastation, depending on who you ask. And then at the next Wednesday Supper, Daisy hears the term again, learns a young professor is teaching a night course on the topic. Uncharacteristically, Daisy decides to enrol, surprising herself, and everybody who knows her. Through involvement in her course, her community widens, the Wednesday night suppers becoming more interesting as her “frackivist” pal starts attending, broadening Daisy’s horizons. And Daisy starts asking more questions, about what changes are necessary in her life, about what she needs to hold onto and let go from the past, and of what possibilities are still before her? Never mind the complicating force of her attraction to Henry, her friend with the bee-hives (and the wife!), he for whom she leaned in close to hear something and he kissed her on her ear. He did. And she keeps encountering women at church who seem concerned she’ll steal their husbands—what if, unbeknownst to her, they’re onto something after all?

Fish’s Daisy put me in mind of another Daisy, Carol Shields’ Daisy Stone Goodwill from The Stone Diaries, another small life with large ramifications and great surprises, a women who reinvents herself over and over again. Another novel steeped in stone and geology as well, rooted in the layers upon layers beneath its characters’ feet. With humour, insight and grace, Fish writes similarly of the “small ceremonies” of ordinary life, of human intimacy and kindness and complications.

Her Ithaca is timely and profound, rich with surprises and delight.

October 17, 2014

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

not-that-kind-of-girlLena Dunham is not that kind of girl, or a kind of girl at all, mostly because the idea of dividing girls into kinds is a fallacy. Girls are people after all, and people are messy, stupid, fucked up and ridiculous, which is much the point of Dunham’s TV series, Girls, and also of her book, Not That Kind of Girl, whose subtitle is pretty redundant. It’s a book as self-aware as Dunham’s oeuvre, styled on 70s’ self-help books (Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All in particular) that purported to have answers, and while Dunham does not pretend to have it all sewed up, she knows a few things, and her ambition is just as far-reaching. And so she has a book, on top of everything else, and it’s a marvellous solid object (whose vintage cover is a nice complement to How to Build a Girl, and both are just delightfully a little bit rock and roll).

No, Dunham is not that kind of girl, but she is That Girl, as the pink text is telling us. The girl who refuses to keep her clothes on (or wear clothes that fit), to stop talking, to stop talking about her vagina, to be humble, to shrug off her ambition, to hide her mental illness, or kowtow to anyone. Which is part of the reasons people hate Lena Dunham, though most of the reason people hate Lena Dunham is because people hate women who don’t give a shit what anybody thinks of them, and it becomes vicious cycle, though less vicious for the woman herself who just doesn’t care.

She writes a book instead. She dedicates it to Norah Ephron, whom she called a friend, and certainly the best parts of the book recall Ephron’s work, like Heartburn and many of her personal essays. The book has so much hype, mostly around its author, that we forget to check and see if it’s any good. Not that it matters altogether. First, because the haters are going to hate it and because everybody else is going to read it anyway. Second, because the question of goodness is just as redundant as the subtitle—Dunham is one of those figures with so much furor swirling around her that we all forget that the baseline is that she’s really, really smart and talented. Yes, the book is a bit of a mess (though anything produced from Denham’s frenetic mind was always going to be), and I’m not sure how much value is added by the random lists that appear between every few pieces (though they certainly weren’t a chore to read). And the book is organized quite haphazardly. But.

I loved reading it—a wild ride through a wild mind with an eye for detail, a raucous sense of humour, enough candour to keep even familiar stories fresh, and a knack for telling it like it is without bullshit. Oh, all the things you have to learn before you learn that you should demand no less than what you deserve—from boys and men in particular. All the compromises we make, often even willingly. Because we want to be cool. And Dunham calls it, all of it. I wish she’d been whispering in my ear throughout most of 1999 and 2000, though perhaps I wouldn’t have listened to her. I wouldn’t have listened because she wasn’t that kind of girl, and when I was that age, I thought that people had to make sense. I was certainly trying to, though failing terribly (and wonderfully, but somewhat mortifyingly, now that I think of it).

Where Dunham makes her mark as an essayist here is with several terrific acts of restraint. Not uncharacteristic restraint either, because all her storytelling is like this—she lays down the facts but she doesn’t explain. Her best work reminds me of what Susan Olding wrote about the essay form:

“Like a cat, the essay wants to go its own way. In an unstable world, we want to know what we’re getting, and with an essay, we can never be sure. 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. Places we may not want to go. We start out learning about embroidery stitches and pages later find ourselves knee-deep in somebody’s grave. That’s the risk we take when we pick up an essay.”

Really, it’s the same with all Dunham’s work, with Dunham herself—its destabilization is its power. Which leads to the idea that her work is messy, when it’s far more deliberate than that. I’m thinking of her essay, “Who Moved My Uterus?” about her (somewhat justified) fears of infertility, her desire to have children, the conflict between this desire and her need to continue the momentum of her career. The essay is without conclusions, because what would any conclusion be that wasn’t far too simple. Saying nothing at all, she manages to convey the magnitude and impossibility of her situation. Similarly, essays about death and her experiences in therapy never take us to where we think they will; I’m not sure many of the pieces of the book take us anywhere, but it’s the experience of reading that matters, which is usually visceral, rarely boring and always as entertaining as it is illuminating.

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