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November 27, 2016

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

swing-timeI can plot my adult life with Zadie Smith novels. I first read White Teeth during the summer of 2001 when I had a job that was in proximity of too many bookshops, and it was the first time it occurred to me in an undergraduate English stupor that there was such a thing as contemporary literature. (I reread it years later and the book was still brilliant, and shockingly prescient.) I got The Autograph Man out of the library a couple of years later when I was living in Nottingham, and I didn’t think much of it, and wasn’t the only one, but that didn’t matter much because On Beauty would come along in 2005, the year we moved to Canada and this modern take on Howards End would continue to expand my ideas about what contemporary literature could do. I bought her last novel, NW, the day that Harriet started playschool in 2012, when I was five minutes pregnant with Iris, and I can’t remember it so well now, partly because I was pregnant, but also because it was a difficult novel to hold in one’s grasp (as suggested by the surprisingly articulate review I wrote, but have no recollection of). And four years and a few months after that, it would be time for me to pick up my pre-ordered copy of her latest, Swing Time.

It took me nine days to read Swing Time, which for me is a literary eternity. Thankfully, I’m not pregnant, but I was busy and also distracted, and it’s not a novel whose plot exactly rivets. It’s also more than 400 pages long, which is heavy to lug, but I did so. It was not that I didn’t enjoy reading it, but sometimes I wondered what the point was. If NW took its reader up and down the streets and alleyways of northwest London, Swing Time transports across continents via jumbo jet and through decades too—its canvas is immense. It’s a novel about girlhood, friendship, race, dance, musical theatre, social media, celebrity, and social mobility. It’s more White Teeth than NW, and Irie even makes a cameo on page 34. And in all its material, I kept waiting for patterns to emerge, for parallels, binaries.

It’s the story of two girls, our unnamed narrator and her childhood friend Tracey who meet at dance class, and they’re both mixed-race children growing on the same housing estate. The novel moves between chapters that take us through their shared history and another contemporary storyline in which the narrator is a personal assistant to an international pop star, Aimee, modelled on Madonna and Kylie Minogue, and helping to establish a school for girls in an unnamed West African country. The notion of time is important through the book, in terms of music and rhythm, narrative time, and also just chronologically. Swing as in swing music, but also in how time swings back and forth between the two narrative threads. (Swing Time is also a 1936 movie musical starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire). Common to both threads is the narrator’s relationship with women—to her mother, to Tracey, to Aimee—and her tendency to lose herself to another’s command. Except that such self-effacingness seems more like a convenient front than actual reality—the narrator is thoroughly in command of the 400+ story she sets out to tell, bending time to suit her own sense of things. Her tendency to not be present is a curious aspect of the book—to the point where other characters are replying to things she said that we never get to read, and what is her name?—but she’s also everywhere, in charge of shining the spotlight even as she ducks out of its glow.

For me, Smith has always been a masterful novelist whose works just kind of peter out before the end, and my explanation for that is that her stories are so excellent that the endings are always going to be a let-down and/or do we really expect her to come up with a novel like that and properly end it too? But in her fourth book, it seems she’s finally got the conclusion that comes with a gut punch, the last fifty pages or so finally bringing the pieces together, the patterns emerging. The conclusion of Swing Time is wonderful, devastating, and ambiguous in the most engaging fashion. Yes, the book is a bit bloated in the middle, but reading any of Smith’s prose is a pleasure. And all of it matters—you just don’t know how until the end.

November 23, 2016

Mini Reviews

the-keys-of-my-prisonThe Keys of My Prison, by Frances Shelley Wees

I loved this one, a reissue of a 1956 novel by Wees who wrote more than 20 romance and mystery novels. The Keys of My Prison fits comfortably into the contemporary craze for domestic suspense novels; its a terrifically Toronto book*; and it reminds me of Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch the Ends the Night in a vague kind of way. It’s the story of a young wife and mother (and heiress!) whose husband is injured in a car crash, and when he emerges from a coma, he’s not the man he was before. Could the man in the bed really be Rafe or is he an imposter? Or is it possible that none of them really ever knew Rafe at all? *Had a bone to pick with the jacket copy though, which describes the family as residing in their Rosedale mansion, but they in fact live north of St. Clair on Russell Hill Road. There is also a mention of the “Bay Subway” which someone takes downtown (and which stops on the surface at the corner of Yonge and St. Clair?) and I couldn’t figure out what that was all about. But that I cared so much is a testament to the book’s appeal. Heartily recommended.

*

cluckCluck, by Lenore Rowntree

I liked this novel a lot, and it’s a story that will appeal to anyone who appreciated Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise a few years back, another story about a quirky character with an affinity for a non-human creature. Structurally, Cluck is a bit lacking, a big and sprawling narrative that could use more focus and tautness, but it has charm and the twists are interesting, and I appreciated the humour throughout, as well as the sensitivity with which Rowntree writes about mental illness and social exclusion. (She previously co-edited an anthology of stories about mental illness.) It begins with Henry playing with his farm set at a young age, and moves through his life as he struggles to find a place for himself in the world, build his own community, and discover an outlet for his passion for poultry. In a hopeful and realistic way, Rowntree depicts the complicated experience of a character for whom conformity is not an option, and has her readers plotting along with her on the road to his ultimate triumph.

*

sex-and-deathSex and Death, edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs

This book was so good. I must confess that it initially gave me a case of CanLit Inferiority Complex, because the internationally-authored stories were so stellar I wondered how poor old Canada could ever compete. BUT…then I realized that it was just that the pieces in this anthology were so well selected (by acclaimed writers including Ben Marcus, Claire Vaye Watkins, Kevin Barry, Taiye Selasi, Ali Smith) rather than the rest of the world setting the bar so high (I am sure there are middling short story writers in the UK; I just never have to hear about them). AND Canadian literature has two stand-out contributions to this anthology, the amazing Lynn Coady and Alexander MacLeod (whose own story is worth the price of the entire book). My favourite story is Ceridwen Dovey’s “Fixations”, however, which is one of two postpartum stories in the collection and the best story I’ve ever read about an anal fissure. I also appreciated the badassedness of flashing this book’s cover on public transit. Funny too how much the thematic concerns of the anthology cease to be the point, partly because the stories are just so great, but also because sex and death pretty much covers everything you’d ever want to write about.

November 16, 2016

Notes

9781771662567_cover_coverbookpage-v2-modalOn the evening of Friday November 4th, I was walking down the street with a copy of Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy in my bag. Striding with purpose, something vital playing through my headphones, and a man on the street approached me. He was holding a clipboard, wearing a vest that identified him as a fundraiser whose job it is to get passersby to sign on in support of a charity. The kind of person I tend to smile at, shaking my head, as I keep on walking. Usually I am also herding recalcitrant small children, which makes me less of a target. But that night I was unencumbered, and although I gave no indication of wishing to engage with this person, he wouldn’t relent. Walking alongside me, asking questions, even though I was listening to music, never made eye contact, never answered him.

He didn’t stop and finally I had to say to him, each word delivered with such deliberateness as I waited at the intersection for the light to turn green: “I don’t want to talk to you.”

The light turned green, and I stepped into the street, and I could hear him behind me: “Oh, that’s really nice,” he was calling out to me, as though I’d refused him something he was entitled to, as though his invading my space necessitated a kind of niceness that ought to be returned.

But, No, no, no, I was thinking. I’m not having any of that.

*

There is something about notes. Notes have an irrefutability that a manifesto lacks, albeit in a shrugging-off kind of womanish way. “When I started this book, I wanted to write something unimpeachable,” writes Erin Wunker in the  introduction to her Notes From a Feminist Killjoy, but her book turned out to be something very different. Or not. “Unimpeachable” is like a red rag to a bull in the realm of discourse. You’re going to go out and build this solid thing just to have someone break it. They call this “debate”. It’s logic, rhetoric. When you debate you’re not meant to get emotional, to remain at a remove, which is easier to do when you’re not personally invested. When it’s theoretical and you can examine it cooly, not getting all hysterical. Okay then, let’s talk about you policing my body, for example. About campus rape. Let’s call abortion a debate.

It’s back and forth. It gets you nowhere. Turns my actual life into a game of ping-pong. I get hysterical.

Notes, on the other hand. Wunker: “I remember that I tell my students that reading and writing are attempts at joining conversations, making new ones, and sometimes, shifting the direction of discourse.”

*

“Notes” is a way of ducking.

Also, ducking is a mechanism of survival. What is wrong with being unwilling to be a target, with refusing to play that game?

“Notes” is different game happening on a whole other level.

*

If I wanted to “impeach” Notes From a Feminist Killjoy, there would be a couple of points I’d start from. The chapter on feminist mothering, for one, which seems to be unaware or else does not to take into account the substantial body of scholarly work on this subject—Sara Ruddick, Andrea O’Reilly, my friend May Friedman, for just a start. Although the chapter poses something familiar to those of us who’ve lived it—the woman on the verge of discovery of this vast world of motherhood and feminism, the questions motherhood necessitates and the unfamiliarity of it all. The complete inapplicability of everything we’ve ever learned before to serve as solutions to our problems. This is a chapter written by an author who is still lost at sea. And there is usefulness in that kind of documentation. But yes, it might have been helpful to have some suggestion of the shore.

My other problem with the text was with the nature of the killjoy, whose moniker I’d wear with relish, actually. Particularly a feminist killjoy. That IS the kind of no-fun I most want to be. (Wunker takes her title from Sara Ahmed’s blog, feministkilljoys, which has been a tremendous discovery for me since reading her book—”joining conversations, making new ones.”)

But I kept being tripped up by the noun becoming a verb—the killjoy actively killing (patriarchal) joys. For a few reasons, one being the violence implicit. I don’t want to kill anything. And also that I have certain amount of reverence for joy. (One of my daughters’ middle name is “Joy.” The other’s middle name is “Malala,” which means sadness, so don’t think I don’t get the whole picture, but she gets to be named for a kickass feminist heroine so it all comes out even.) Joy and happiness, which Wunker writes about as a socialized and commodified product, a social imperative. “Happiness as restricted access. Happiness as a country club, a resort, an old boy’s club for certain boys only.” Happiness as an impossibility.

And yet it’s that notion, not of happiness itself but of its impossibility, that chafes me. Partly because I believe in (even insist on) a genuine happiness that need not be commodified at all—the way the afternoon sun shines right now on my cup of tea, for example. It’s about being present, eyes wide, curious and ready to receive it. It’s about the peace of a moment. Happiness is small and it is slippery, but it’s real.

There really is such thing as joy, and to refer to patriarchal violence as such a thing undermines it. Undermines the spaces we need to create for joy to exist in our personal corners of the world.

*

Of course, there has been very little joy for anyone who considers herself a feminist in the past week. (It is November 15 as I write this.) That Friday evening as I asserted myself and said, “I don’t want to talk to you,” seems like a relic of a bygone age. When we were reading (excellent, amazing) news articles with headlines like, “The Men Feminism Left Behind.” When I was thinking that progress was slow, but how far I’d come to be able to speak up and say those words to the man on the street. To not have to worry about being nice. When I was taking comfort in my daughters coming into the world on the headwinds of so much necessary, vital change.

After I crossed the street that night and left the man behind, I got on the subway and read Wunker’s chapter about rape culture. The part about her running through the woods to flee a man who’d tried to lure her into his car on a country road. I remember the details: her Birkenstocks, the wound on her foot. The sense that all of us have had of being chased, the fear. Rape as a thing and rape as a sceptre, an inevitable that we steel ourselves for. By not walking at night, for example. There is no joy here either. There is darkness illuminated by streetlights, but even there you can’t be safe.

*

Notes is a way of starting. Trying. Essai. If a manifesto is a red rag, then a note is a building block, a puzzle piece. The reader responds not by charging, but by saying, Yes and, or Yes but. She doesn’t respond by tearing the whole thing down.

I love the way the narrative thread of Wunker’s book makes its way with seeming effortlessness. There is nothing laboured about how a discussion of rape culture leads to the Jian Ghomeshi trial leads to women coming together leads to a chapter on friendship. (Which references The Babysitters Club. Yes, and!!) Why are so few of our formative texts about female friendship? “What is it about female friendship that inspires such insipid descriptors?” What are relationships between women often so fraught?

“Is it too hard to write your own narrative and witness another’s, simultaneously?”

*

making-feminist-mediaAs I watched the election results last Tuesday night (and felt as heartbroken as I’ve ever felt in my life, perhaps, which is saying something for how lucky I’ve been in a world that’s notoriously hard to live in) I was trying to read the book I’d been reading for a couple of days, Making Feminist Media: Third Wave Magazines on the Cusp of the Digital Age, by Elizabeth Groenveld. I started reading it because those third wave magazines (Bitch and Bust) were what taught me to call myself a feminist, made me realize that I’d been a feminist all along. I’ve always loved magazines—you know, the kind that smelled like perfume—but then one day I stumbled into the magazine rack at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore and discovered there was a kind of magazine that didn’t make me feel like less than a person. That there were things other than just a boyfriend that could make my soul complete—do you know what a revelation this was to me? It’s still shocking to consider just how much.

I never noticed when I was writing them that everybody in the magazine was white. It would take me years to realize there was anything strange about that, what a departure from reality such whiteness actually is. I also recall reading letters in Bitch about whether this was a magazine for feminists or lesbians, and (I say this with shame) feeling similar consternation. I didn’t know there was such a thing as intersectionality then. I have learned a lot since I started reading these magazines a decade and a half ago.

What occurred to me though on the day after the elections as I finished reading Grovenveld’s book was the difficulty all these magazines have had in surviving—how the feminist message remains so niche. Considering this in the context of the number of white women who voted for a misogynist fascist seems sort of unremarkable. Why doesn’t feminism sell more? Thinking too about what Grovenveld writes about identity politics and how focusing on distinct groups creates a sense of community among the group’s members, but ultimately it keeps the focus too narrow for widespread change to occur. For the magazine to be sustainable, she means. (Although she writes that a magazine being short-lived is not fair as a standard of failure. The fact that it even existed at all, and was read, defies so many odds.)

On Friday morning I was walking with my friends and we were talking about that group of women who voted for a misogynist fascist, and one friend framed this too in the context of intersectionality, which I’d never properly considered. I’d been thinking about the failure of intersectionality as women break apart instead of coming together (although I understand entirely, and I get that #solidarityisforwhitewomen) but never thought about the troubling intersectionality of these white women with their allegiances to the patriarchy. No woman is a highway.

What is it that makes women go so far out of their way not to support other women? Why did so many people dislike Hillary Clinton so much. To the point of going out of their way to elect a fascist, I mean. Is it because of the lack of representation of female relationships that Wunker references? To the end of getting to the answer to that question, Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck came in for me at the library.

*

trainwreckTrainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why is a historical and pop-cultural look at the women who’ve stirred up shit from the margins and who (as Doyle posits) may have actually been prophets but it’s just that the world wasn’t ready yet. (Billie Holiday on rape culture, anyone?)

I needed a bit of levity these last few days, but also some more context as to how we’ve arrived here, and this book offered both. Why do we set up women to fail with impossible standards, and then decide it’s our job to punish them, to destroy them, when they do?

What the trainwreck shows us, Doyle writes, is that “in a sexist culture, being female is an illness for which there is no cure.”

*

Which bring us to here.

And no, no, no. I’m still not having any of that.

November 6, 2016

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett

the-mothersOf the many terrible consequences of abortion having been turned into an “issue”—a binary issue at that, a “debate”—is that the narratives have lost their meat. So caught up in the rhetoric, women become uncomfortable with the nuanced reality of the situation. And instead one is either for or against, pro or anti. Abortion is good or evil, a life-saver or murder. And what gets lost in all this opposition are the stories. That abortion is not an issue, but that it’s a fact of so many women’s lives, and it exists on a spectrum with a million degrees of experience.

In The Mothers, the debut novel by Brit Bennett—which has received all kinds of buzz and which I finally bought after hearing it praised over and over again, and I’m so glad I did—those experiences are explored over a half decade in the lives of three young people connected to an African-American church community in a coastal California town. Although it might be more accurate to say say that two of the three are disconnected— Nadia Turner’s mother had been a devout churchgoer, but she’d killed herself six months before Nadia gets herself knocked up by Luke, the wayward son of the preacher. There’s never a doubt in Nadia’s mind about what she must do—she’s got a scholarship to the University of Michigan, and this is her ticket out of a life as narrow and confining as her mother’s was, and she doesn’t want to relive her mother’s mistakes, who had Nadia when she was just 17. And so Nadia gets an abortion, setting herself back upon the path that she’d envisioned for herself. Though there is still a summer to get through before she can finally get away, and she’s forced into taking a job as the assistant to Luke’s mother. Spending more time at the church than she ever had before, she develops a friendship with Aubrey, a girl her age who joined the church after being rejected by her own mother (and fleeing abuse from her mother’s boyfriend). Both girls motherless then, and Nadia has rejected motherhood, and every chapter begins with a chorus of voices, “the mothers” from the church, women whom Barbara Pym would have termed as “excellent.” Unbeknownst to both girls, they are being watched over.

With sweeping narrative maneuvering, Bennett conducts this cast of people through years and great changes in their own lives. We see Nadia moving away and excelling in all the ways that had been imagined for her, and how she cannot manage to escape the decision she made to end her pregnancy, how she carries the experience with her. And how too it dwells within Luke, who fails to support Nadia properly, but then theirs had never been a proper relationship anyway, and as his life remains at a standstill, Nadia’s abortion comes to stand in for all the opportunities he has lost and a source of his pain. And for Aubrey too who becomes close to Luke and has her own pain that needs healing.

Bennett nicely situates the personal against the political, Nadia’s experience with anti-abortion politicking by church members (although not so avidly—these are reasonable people) and also about how one’s convictions become flexible when an unwanted pregnancy is a fact instead of an idea. She shows how a woman can choose an abortion and know it’s the right choice, but still mourn what she’s lost and wonder at the could-have-beens. That an abortion, like a lot of things that happen to people over the course of their lives, is a complicated, multi-faceted thing.

The Mothers was born out of Brit Bennett’s MFA thesis at the University of Michigan, and there were some edges of the narrative that whispered (but didn’t scream) to me: first book. Not in the usual sense—the story is substantial, developed, and written with deep empathy and understanding of the experiences of its characters. This book is solid. But I could also see how this is the work of a writer at the start of her career—some of the set-ups were familiar, the kind of thing that you read in a lot of first books, a seam or two visible. But that this could be both conspicuously a first book and be as ambitious as it is, and not only be reaching but be exceeding its grasp? How incredible is that?

The Mothers is an outstanding achievement, one of the best books I’ve read this year, the kind of book that leaves its reader waiting for whatever its author has coming up next.

(And in the meantime, read her essay, “I don’t know what to do with good white people.”)

November 2, 2016

Fall Books on the Radio

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In the “Dreams Come True” file, it has been a longtime dream of mine to talk about books on the radio (books AND the radio—two of the very best things) and so my column on CBC Ontario Morning is something of a wonder. Today I got to talk about Fall Books, and it’s fitting then that their spines are so autumnal. You can listen to my recommendations on the podcast here—I come on at 43.13. 

October 31, 2016

Experimental Film, by Gemma Files

experimental-filmI spent Thanksgiving weekend—as summer turned into fall, the leaves turned into reds and oranges, as everything started to wither and die—reading Gemma Files’ Experimental Film, which was so fitting for the season. I absolutely loved it, and was not the only one to do so—the novel won the Shirley Jackson Award in the summer and the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic in September. It’s a book about horror movies, and the history of Canadian cinema, and motherhood, and parenting a child with autism, and there are ghosts and it gets creepy, and it gave me bad dreams—which I mean as a testament to the book’s power. I liked it so much, and found it had uncanny connections to Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different, which I read right after—both protagonists are socially awkward, intellectually brilliant and unmoored in their own lives. In fact, I’d really like to go out for drink with both of them.

I was grateful for the chance to ask some questions about the book to Gemma Files for a feature at 49thShelf. I hope you’ll check it out and enjoy her thoughts on film and literature, the haunting capabilities of both, about how the movie Candyman inspired the book’s structure, the influence of Shirley Jackson, and what it means for literature to be weird.

Read it here. 

October 30, 2016

My Year of Tana French

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Last year, we had a rough December. I had pneumonia for almost a month, only recovering a couple of days before Christmas, and then Harriet got a stomach bug and Stuart came down with strep throat. It was not the most fun, and people responded with inordinate kindness. And at the tail-end of it all, we came home from visiting friends on New Years Day to find a plastic Waitrose bag hanging from our door. It was from my friend Nathalie (who blogs here). She’d delivered us a container full of soup (soup!) and a pile of books, which were the complete works (so far) of Tana French.

Can I tell you that if a book of anybody else’s entire oeuvre had been delivered to my house, it would have been an imposition. There are probably at least one hundred books around my house that I ought to be reading or at least rereading, and I am empowered enough as a reader that I don’t need any guidance as to what to read next. But I’d wanted to read Tana French for some time, and unlike most mystery writers, her books are rarely available second-hand (which is saying something). It is possible that I would have gone on wanting to read Tana French forever, but not actually done so, had Nathalie not delivered them to my door.

And so my year of Tana French began, with In the Woods, which is the best one, the most devastating, the most brilliant. Which is not to say that she’s not grown and changed with her books, but instead that I had no idea what I was in for with my first Tana French. I wasn’t even prepared to be blown away. Oh, but I was. Not by the mystery so much, though it was compelling enough, but by her first-person narrator, this broken man who doesn’t know he’s broken and I know it long before he does (and that line delivered by his flatmate when we realize that there’s so much he hasn’t told us. When we realize what he’s done…)

Tana French’s books all stand alone and aren’t necessarily a series, but if you read them in order, each one informs the other, a secondary or peripheral character from the previous books becoming the protagonist. The partner of the detective from In the Woods takes the helm in The Likeness, whose premise was kind of implausible and which was unapologetically inspired by Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I was reading that one before Valentines Day, because I recall walking and reading it all the way to Kensington Market where I went to buy a present for Stuart, this winter having been uncharacteristically warm, because usually reading while walking in February just wouldn’t be possible. (It was wonderfully to be loving a book just that much.)

I read Faithful Place next, while lying on a deckchair in Barbados, in a single day, even. I think this might have been the one I love most, even if it’s because things domestically for Frank Mackey get sorted in a way that was heartwarming, amidst the murder and creepy basements. I read Broken Harbour in May, and this was one that really messed with my head (and I wrote about it here in a blog post called “Tana French is Ruining my Life”, so titled because I couldn’t stop reading at bedtime and wasn’t getting any sleep, plus the book was giving me nightmares). And then brought The Secret Place along on our vacation in August, and didn’t love it as much as the other books and it veered into the supernatural in a way that was a little bit weird (although it also dealt with girls and power and the power of girlhood in a way that was interesting—and tied into other books I read on that vacation, including The Girls, by Emma Cline, and The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante). But I was still reading a book by Tana French, and there really isn’t much that’s quite like it.

I’d preordered The Trespasser, French’s first book since 2014, and it seems fitting that my year of Tana French should have a new release by her within it. (I was in Barbados when I learned this new book was forthcoming. Imagine my joy: that there would be another Tana French when the books in the Waitrose bag were done!). And it was everything I’d hoped it would be—a return to tradition of the first four books, a narrator on the edge who doesn’t know how close she is, a strange and tricky murder whose solution is not immediately in sight. I love her plots, her characters, her humour, and that I learn insults like “wankstain” (which shows up in two books). I love her complicated women and men, and their aloneness, and the awkward ways her characters connect with each other. I love her prose, her twists, and her portrayal of Ireland post-boom. Can you tell that I love everything?

For a more erudite appreciation, do read Laura Miller’s recent piece in The New Yorker. And it’s been a good year, but can you believe I have to wait two more of them (at least?) to find out what comes next?

October 25, 2016

The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, by Lola Lafon

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On the surface, Lola Lafon’s novel The Little Communist Who Never Smiled (translated from French by Nick Caistor) is a fictionalization of the life of Nadia Comaneci, but that (of course) is just a cover. What the book is really about is messaged in between the lines (or, quite literally, between the words). The Little Communist… is a book about the Cold War, the politicization of sport and womanhood, about deciphering codes and, fundamentally, this is a novel about punctuation.

the-little-communistThe book begins with Nadia’s performance on the uneven bars at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. (I call her Nadia. Everybody did. I wasn’t born until 1979, but I came into a world where girls were still gymnastics-mad and it occurs to me that gymnasts from that time are the only Olympic athletes I’m familiar with who aren’t from my country. From a very young age, I knew who Nadia Comaneci was.)

Her victory hung on point of punctuation, kind of—a decimal. Her score of 10.0 had never been achieved in gymnastics before and therefore the display screen didn’t have the capacity to show it. Lafon shows the confusion and crisis and judges and administrators realized what had happened and the scoreboard read 1.0, and the implications of this—this was an athlete from whom an entirely different system of success would be designed. “New numbers need to be invented. Or just abandon numbers altogether.”

On page 18, Lafon describes Comaneci: “Her arched back is a comma.” Which is significant because of how conspicuous commas are in the text. Comma splices are scattered throughout the novel, and I had to consider their implication, what they do to sentences. How in English they join unlike ideas in slightly jarring ways that makes the reader think twice, and it made me think about Romania in the 1970s and 1980s, a point in between the Cold War divides of East and West. Later in the book, Lafon shows Comaneci delivering an address in 1984 to announce her retirement from competition, an address that was written for her by the writer who composes all her official speeches: “He writes them out in short lines with commas so that she can pause for breath between them.” But in this address there are no commas. “She had not planned to be silent for so long she is simply searching for the comma, she thought she saw it but there wasn’t one, her words are chosen for her one last time, the comma jumps from one word to the next, like the decimal point: one point nought nought, she raises her eyes to those who have no words…”

The echo of the uneven bars creaking at the Montreal Olympics is “an uneven punctuation for her body as it folds itself around them.” Periods are replaced in between the letters of rival Olga Korbut’s first name in a Man From U.N.C.L.E.-like Cold War allusion (O.L.G.A). In her imagined exchanges with Comaneci, Lafon considers the punctuation used in newspaper coverage about Comaneci, “exclamation marks that compete with the ellipses.” There are references to the story of Nadia being written, rewritten (and indeed they are in Lafon’s imagined exchanges, which cast doubt on everything represented by facts. Truth is nowhere. Everything is suspicious.) and defying translation.

And then there is the period, the decimal point in another form. Full stop. Also menstruation (which I don’t think shares its name with a punctuation mark in the novel’s original French, interestingly, although apparently the French term for menstruation means “rules,” so it’s equally firm), which is hugely significant in this text. The arrival of the period signals the beginning of the end of Comaneci’s career, no matter her coach’s and manager’s efforts to stymy the effects of puberty through training and pharmaceuticals. But in the context of Romanian history, it has wider and more disturbing ramifications regarding forced pregnancy tests women were submitted to to eliminate instances of abortion, the way that not only Nadia had her body regarded as property of the state. And really, this sense of ownership over women’s bodies is a universal thing—anyone else who’s not an Olympic gymnast ever been chastised for not smiling?

And yet Lafon avoids obvious and facile comparisons with East and West with her imagined dialogue with Comaneci, who questions the ways in which women and athletes in the West are necessarily more free. While never minimizing the negative effects of life under the Ceaușescu regime, Lafon complicates notions that here and now is necessarily better than then and there. While Romanian people had nothing during the 1980s, Lafon is reminded in imagined conversations that sometimes nothing is better than insatiable materialist desires. All this so that we’re left with a notion of history and truth that is as elusive as Nadia herself, always just slipping out of one’s grasp.

“You quietly airbrushed your mistakes…could we say that?”

“Yes, exactly. I rewrite everything! But….discreetly.” 

Thank you for the International Festival of Authors for inviting me to be a part of your blog tour and giving me the opportunity to read this truly excellent book. 

Lola Lafon’s appearances at Toronto’s 2016 International Festival of Authors
(Supported by the Consulate General of France):
Monday October 24 8pm “Interpreting the Past” (Reading/Round Table)
Wednesday October 26 6pm “EUNIC: Writing History Telling Stories” (Reading/Round Table)

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October 18, 2016

The Party Wall, by Catherine Leroux

party-wall

It’s always a good sign when the blank pages inside a book become riddled with notes and diagrams, as has been the case with my copy of the Governor-General’s Award/ Giller-nominated The Party Wall, by Catherine Laroux, prize-winner in its original French, translated into English by Lazer Lederhendler (Nikolski!). Not because the stories themselves in the novel are so difficult to figure out—in fact, they read beautifully with luminous prose (“Fall is approaching and the warmth of the South throbs on the horizon like a sack of gold at the foot of a rainbow”)—but because the challenge and the pleasure is discovering how all of it fits together. While the shape of most narratives is a horizontal line (with the inevitable bump for a climax), the shape of The Party Wall is multi-dimensional, arrows pointed in all four directions and connections that hold the whole thing fast.

The Party Wall is several stories, and while one might argue it’s more a story collection than a novel, I have more fun considering it as the latter. These stories could probably all each stand on their own but the whole is much more than the sum of its parts, which come together in the beginning as a series of curiosities: a woman in Bathurst, New Brunswick, discovers she is not the biological mother of the son she gave birth to; a married couple with a cosmic connection (and he actually the Prime Minister of a future, post-apocalyptic Canada) discover they are twins who were long ago given up for adoption; and a brother and sister (a police officer and an Olympic runner) in San Francisco sit by the bedside of their difficult mother who is dying, and each try to come to terms with the fact that they may now never discover the identity of their father. These descriptions might give the impression that these aren’t stories that are steeped in realism, that they belong to a nether or even an ether world, but that’s not the case. There is magic and there is wonder, and while these situations are indeed highly unlikely, look around you and consider what isn’t.

If these stories are rooms in a house, the walls of the house (that connect them and divide them) are a story on another scale, one that takes place over the course of a single morning in Savannah, Georgia, two sisters wandering the rough and familiar edges of their neighbourhood. From details in the larger-canvassed stories, the reader understands premonitions of danger, this offering the book in parts the momentum of a novel—and where the danger is actually found is probably not where the reader expected. Anticipation of narrative links also urge the reader through the book, and the revelations are never cheap or disappointing, instead adding texture to the richness of the narrative.

In addition to the narrative links, the stories are joined by references to unfortunate cats (whose names include Bastard, Wretch and Shabby), a fixation on horizons (“the boundary between the two worlds, and what manages, unbeknownst to scientists and the gods, to travel from one to the other”) and walls that get knocked on, punched in, listened though and lived in. And yes, the splendid writing, twists that bend your mind, and a story that stretches across a continent, across years and lives, and binds them all together.

October 17, 2016

Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple

today-will-be-differentThe first time I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple, was the night after Iris was born via c-section, when I was immobile and yet expected to breastfeed my squalling baby off and on throughout the night (and many nights after…). Not exactly the best of times but it turned out to be the best of books, so much so that every time the baby woke, I was excited to pick up the novel again. It made for splendid reading. Bernadette was smart, funny, clever, breezy, dark, light, and I have  always been a little sorry it ended. I’ve never completely gotten over this book.

I read Semple’s first novel, This One is Mine, not longer after, hungry for more of the goodness. It was not as good as Bernadette but had the same something. The same understanding that smart books need not be serious, and humour and situations surely born from their author’s experience writing for television. The same slightly neurotic, irresistible (if you’re a certain kind of reader) point of view. Awhile after that, I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette? again, because I wanted to and also because I wanted to see if it was as wonderful as I remembered/if perhaps I’d been influenced by being on drugs in my adoration of it. It was/I wasn’t.

And so I’ve been waiting more than three years to read Maria Semple again, a situation that brings with it enormous expectations, and I am very pleased to say that Today Will Be Different didn’t disappoint. And nor was it like anything I’d expected. I did a Q&A with Marissa Stapley last week at 49thShelf.com, and she noted that readers and critics of commercial fiction need to take notice of when its writers are taking risks with their work, and celebrate those risks. Here is a book that defies categorization, that pushes the limits of fiction and its tools (and how—the novel contains a mini graphic memoir, among other paraphernalia). Structurally, it’s a fascinating book…why is why I was totally annoyed last week when I listened to an interview with Semple and the interviewer refused to talk about the book outside the realms of autobiography.

It’s true that writers like Semple do make it easy for critics to fall into the trap of conflating author and narrator. It’s true too that very often the two are properly conflated. But when we view our fiction (and our fiction by women in particular) through such a narrow lens, we limit ourselves as to what fiction is all about and missing the chance to talk about women as artists and creators instead of giant sacks of feelings and experience (and after all, what then is memoir for?).

The way that Semple mines her experience and the world around her is interesting. There. There’s a start. Also the way she blurs fact and fiction even in her form, by including extra textual documentation and creating cultural reference points in vivid detail. Today We Will Be Different differs remarkably from Bernadette in its first person narration—while Bernadette was an enigma, we know exactly where Eleanor Flood is, and the reader is stuck right inside her head. Which is a little hard to take at times, and why this is the case is a worthwhile question and makes me thing of demonstrable evidence that people prefer the sound of a male voice to a female one. It’s also a matter of Eleanor’s idiosyncrasies, her digressions and preoccupations, and bluntness—she actively maintains a list of subjects she proactively chooses not to care about, diversity among them. Eleanor Flood is not dying for you to like her. And yet like her, you probably will. She even knows you will.

The book begins with the prospect of a new day, a day which (no surprise here) our protagonist becomes determined will represent a turning point away from the rut in which she has found herself stuck. “Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and change into yoga clothes only for yoga, which today I will actually attend.” An ordinary day that might make all the difference, and it does, but not for the reasons that Eleanor imagines it will. Her plans soon go off the rails: her son’s school calls requesting she pick him up as he’s suffering from a fictional stomach bug; her lunch plans (with the friend she’s spent a decade being unable to shake) are not what she bargained for; and when she shows up at her husband’s office to foist their son upon him, it turns out he’s told his staff that he’s on vacation for a week and they’re surprised that Eleanor and Timby aren’t with him. Where is he? 

There are writers who sit down and painstakingly plan their books before they start writing, a mess of post-it notes and index cards, and one gets the feeling that Maria Semple is not one of them. The plots of her books resemble those dotted lines on maps in Saturday morning cartoons in which small children navigate space with curious and often dangerous diversions. Which is kind of a funny way to plot a book, but think of the joy you once got in running your finger along that line, and also of the momentum inherent in this kind of narrative, the briskness with which the reader is brought along for the ride. It also turns out that plot isn’t really the point is, but voice is, and Eleanor Flood’s is the kind of voice that’s hard to get out of your head.

While parts of the narrative seem too brisk, a careful reader will discern clues hearkening to a deeper story, a complicated one of family and Eleanor’s sister, who is only alluded to briefly and mysterious in the novel’s first section. Why the elusiveness? Follow the urgent dotted line, and you will discover the answer, and while the novel ends in a story line that is as ridiculous as the end of Bernadette, you will just be so devastated that it’s over.

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