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December 9, 2014

The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw

bookThe trouble with being a little bit odd is that my book recommendations are not always universal, and so it is useful when I encounter a book as odd as I am, to which I can point and say, “This book is not for everyone. BUT.” Say, if you are the type who can identify with a woman who finds an injured pigeon (while travelling on her canal boat, which she has converted into a financial under-performing bookshop) and then decides to uncover all references to pigeons in the Western canon, then The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw is definitely for you. It is definitely for me. My husband is a bit relieved that I’ve finally finished it, because for the past few days, I’ve been reading him passages from every other page, and while he conceded that they were indeed quite funny, he found the whole thing rather strange.

Last night in particular was the part in the book that was narrated from the perspective of the boat itself (oh yes—and its narration replicates Black Beauty, with which the boat [called Joseph] shares a colour) in which Henshaw comes home traumatized by having found “a discarded sanitary towel pressed between the pages of a reference book on cowboys… [S]he said that book vandalism was the devil’s own trade mark, and if we saw any one who took pleasure in leaving menstrual paraphernalia between pages, we might know to whom he belonged, for the devil was a murderer from the beginning and a tormentor to the end. On the other hand, where we saw people who loved their books and were kind to hardback and soft cover, we might know that was God’s mark; for ‘God loves books.'”

To be fair, that’s probably the oddest part of the book. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. But still….

The premise of this book initially put me in mind of Penelope Fitzgerald, with the offshore and the bookshop, and everything, and while Henshaw doesn’t reference Fitzgerald, The Bookshop That Floated Away still did not disappoint. It’s not really a book about a premise anyway, but instead very much of itself, about the curious incidents that transpire when the strange and insular worlds of books and canal boating connect. The latter is not always romantic—in Burnley, they have to navigate over a sofa, and then she fears a human head has become stuck on her propeller. And then there are the locks, so many locks, mostly manual, which is no small business when you are a solo journeyer and your boat is sixty feet long. It’s a different kind of off-roading, which results in travel book that reminded me of Beryl Bainbridge’s English Journey, if Bainbridge had been travelling by canal boat and had a propensity for hosting book clubs on her boat and imbibing far too much wine.

Henshaw’s journey comes about when her plans for opening a bookshop on a barge aren’t as lucrative as she’d supposed, the problem perhaps exacerbated by a conspicuous lack of business savvy—her one qualification for the gig is a voracious appetite for books, and the ability to see the whole world through a bookish prism. So she decides to go on a six month journey from the Midlands to London, then to Bristol, back through the Midlands to Leeds and Manchester, and then home, bartering books for Victorian sponge cake and spreading the word about the importance of independent bookshops.

On the way, she has good days and catastrophes, the boat indeed floats away, people vomit on its astroturf roof, she finds three injured pigeons, the boat is stolen, vandalized, the Mayor of Bath calls Joseph a “she”, and they are banned in Bristol. She tells her own story, and is so deft with allusion that she successfully navigates a Heart of Darkness meets Scuffy the Tugboat set-up. The narrative is further powered by other references to boatish and adventure books—Treasure Island, and The Wind and the Willows, plus Anna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dick Whittington and His Cat, Our Mutual Friend, but not The Complete Guide to Starting and Running a Bookshop, because Henshaw couldn’t get into it.

The book is crazy wonderful, if you’re a certain kind of reader, though I suspect that if you’re reading this, you might well be. I discovered The Book Barge (which is misnamed, Henshaw tells us, and is actually a narrow boat, the discrepancy causing much consternation among boating purists) from The Bookshop Book, and was pleased to find out (spoilers!) that Henshaw decided not to jump ship at the end of her journey, determining that there was indeed nothing else worth doing as messing about in boats, as both Mole and Rat will attest.

  • Discover The Book Barge online.
  • learn more about The Book Barge
  • PS In an ironic twist of fate, The Bookshop That Floated Away is not available outside the UK (or not here at least), so I was unable to order it through my local independent bookshop, and had to get it through The Book Depository instead. But I am so glad I did…

December 7, 2014

The Return by Dany Laferriere, and books in translation

the-returnFor all kinds of reasons, I am so pleased to have finally read Dany Laferriere’s The Return. Not least because Laferriere is one of Canada’s most internationally celebrated writers—in its original French, The Return won the Prix Médicis (France) in 2009, the International Literature Award (Germany) in 2014, and Laferriere was elected to the Académie française a year ago, the first Haitian and Canadian writer to receive this honour. It was kind of ridiculous that I’d never read him before.

I’m pleased mostly to have read The Return because I liked it so much, a novel that blurs boundaries in all kinds of ways—between fiction and autobiography, poetry and prose, home and exile, belonging and displacement, and also bridging the extremes in common perceptions of Haiti. It’s a novel whose prose is both stirring and lulling, easy to read and rich with wonderful lines. It begins when Dany, our protagonist, receives a phone that tells him his father is dead, a father he hardly knew, and even still, this begins a journey out of exile, back to the Haiti that Dany had fled decades before, to bring the spirit of his father home. So he goes back to a home that is no longer home, driven by a relationship with his father mostly constituted of absence and silence. It’s not a straightforward journey, and nothing is ever merely one thing or another, and I love that.

I love also how the book is so curious in its construction, how it tears down and reconstructs all my ideas of just what a novel is shaped like, which is what I wanted to have happen when I resolved to read more books in translation in 2014. And so I am also glad to have read The Return because it’s one more translation on my reading list, to which I can point now and say that my 2014 goals were met in a way that was not entirely half-assed. Just a modest success, but I did so appreciate the books in translation I read this year—and I like that most of them were Canadian, translated from French (The Return, by David Homel), French via Inuktitut (Sanaaq), and Chiac, an Acadian-French dialect spoken in New Brunswick (For Sure). I also read The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated from Dutch, which I liked a lot, and Viviane by Julia Deck, translated from French and first published in France.

So 5 books out of a hundred and some, which is a bit meh, but alas. I’m going to keep seeking out books in translation in 2015, and I already have a copy of Dany Lafferriere’s I am a Japanese Writer waiting to be read.

December 2, 2014

The View From the Lane by Deborah-Anne Tunney

view-from-the-laneA reader’s first impression of Deborah-Anne Tunney’s The View From the Lane will certainly be informed from the striking image on its cover, which I recognized as an image by Bryan Scott from the beautiful book, Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg. It’s a cover that invites the reader inside, out of the chill—fresh snow, fresh tracks. Though it’s a bit of a trick—the stories in this book aren’t set in Winnipeg at all, and while there is a universal element to both the cover image and the stories, the latter is actually quite particular in its locale, which is the Overbrook neighbourhood of Ottawa, a public housing development built during the 1950s. But still, I think that the cover is right, because of how it drew me to the book, my interest only heightened by a glowing endorsement by Isabel Huggan on the back.

The cover is right too because of the weather. “Winter suited us: the howl of wind, the frost as thick as calluses on the window, the sleet we could see blowing along icy sidewalks in long crystal strands, all served to isolate us in our home that creaked under the weight of all that winter snow.”

The View from the Lane is a book that recalls Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories in its scope. We follow Tunney’s protagonist, Amy, back before her own birth to the lives of her mother and her sisters, their storied childhood in a big house on Nelson Street in Ottawa. One by one, the sisters leave school and begin work in the salon on the ground floor of the Chateau Laurier hotel, and from there they met their fate in the form of disappointing marriages, widowhood, love and loss, and love and loss again. It’s true—winter suits them. It’s almost never summer in this book, it’s almost always snowing, and the stories’ foundation seems to be a disbelief in the possibility of happiness. Or at least the easy kind. Whose opposite still is never dreariness, no, but something more real, and it’s always unfailingly interesting.

Ostensibly, the stories are written from a variety of points of view, many different ways of observing the same thing, which is Amy’s life and history. Though we begin to see that the structure is not even as straightforward as that, and that there is an omniscience here that comes from Amy’s imaginings, her supposing. Even the story told from the perspective of the dog is a thought experiment. She is a woman in the habit of observing mirrors, reflections caught in windows. Her character is implicit in every story in this collection, even those in which she doesn’t appear. Everything is subjective.

While chronology drives the narrative forward, a backward-looking sense pervades the entire book, and it reminded me of the line from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye when she writes about the past ever bubbling on up to the surface: “Nothing ever goes away.” Which isn’t the only way The View From The Lane recalled Atwood’s classic, the two books with atmospheres so similar—1950s’ childhood, 1960s’ adolescence, the dark edges of suburbia. Though Tunney’s in particular is not so picket-fenced, and she creates a wonderful sense of the neighbourhood of Amy’s childhood, with its red-brick duplexes and townhouses, rusted cars and brambles in the lane ways between the houses, stray dogs roaming the alleys. Even then, the neighbourhood was rough, but it was a place of people, connections, and stories, not a bad place to grow up. Amy’s perspective casts those streets and lanes and alleys within a fog of nostalgia.

It’s where she keeps coming back to even as she grows up, moves away, gets married, then divorced. These are the stories and images she returns to, just as her mother kept returning to her own childhood, and eventually it becomes clear that these stories—which are rich and varied—are marking the trajectory of Amy’s movement toward an understanding of her mother and her mother’s life, at the same time her mother is slipping away from her.

I loved this book just as much as I’d supposed I would when I first saw the cover. Tunney’s prose is the kind that makes her reader sit up and take notice, and while it’s consciously written in some parts, more often it just served to perfectly cast a spell. My other mild criticism is that Amy herself, the heart of the story, remains a bit elusive—there’s a part where somebody comments that her name doesn’t seem to suit her and I felt similarly. The book is so firmly ensconced in her vision that her character is hard to read. When we encounter her more directly in the book’s final story, she almost seems like a stranger.

But even that is more a mark of the book’s interestingness than its failing. And seems in keeping with the cover image too—notice there’s nobody out on the road at night. Instead, this is a book about atmosphere, and memories, and the power of a place in the past to shape the people we become.

November 30, 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station-elevenLately, I’ve been reading off the beaten track (with more to come—so exciting! Up next is a copy of The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner, and over the holidays I intend to read all four of Marilynne Robinson’s novels. And it thrills me so to read like this), but I am glad I came back down to earth to read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which came recommended by Nathalie Foy and was nominated for a National Book Award. With the latter point in particular, it doesn’t need a review from me, but I want to take a moment write about how much I enjoyed reading it. About how it didn’t immediately seem like something I’d appreciate—The Travelling Symphony, a troupe of actors and musicians, makes its way across America in the years following an apocalyptic flu pandemic that had brought the of civilization as we know it. That kind of setting rarely draws me—I like my books in civilization, thank you very much. But Mandel has a savvy knack of mixing it up, for turning the page at just the point my readerly patience is waning, and taking me somewhere altogether new. The novel moves between (seemingly) our present day and the not-s0-distant future, between Toronto on the eve of the pandemic, Hollywood some years before, and an airport in the future in which relics of the past—mobile phones, credit cards, games consoles, and more—have been preserved in a “Museum of Civilization.” The night of the flu outbreak, an actor dies onstage while performing King Lear at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, a child actress in the wings watching, an audience member jumping on stage to per for CPR. And it turns out that Arthur Leander’s last night is the last night of everything, although memory of that night lives on in the mind of a few survivors connected to the actor. The survivors are also linked by a mysterious comic book whose narrative seems eerily prescient, and it turns out that this book about the end of the world is actually about the best of the world—the Travelling Symphony’s motto (written on their caravans, stolen from Star Trek) is, “Because survival is not enough,” after all.

And it’s not a book without hope. “If there are again towns with streetlights, if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain?” Which is a question any of us could be asking any time, Station Eleven a reminder that wonders are ever unceasing—the spell of a good book most certainly among them.

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.

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"If Life Gave Me Lemons" (short story) at Joyland
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"Helter Skelter" (short story) in TNQ 130
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"Rereading Fear of Flying" (personal essay) in The Toronto Review of Books
Fear of Flying