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February 12, 2020

The Skin We’re In, by Desmond Cole

It makes sense that a writer who has insisted on blurring lines between journalism and activism would create a book that’s such a powerful blend of reporting and memoir, and it’s the extraordinary framing of his story that helps makes Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In a rich and enveloping read.

“A Year of Black Resistance and Power” is the book’s subtitle (except, YIKES, it almost wasn’t), and indeed, this is the story of 2017, which was two years after Cole’s Toronto Life cover story about his experiences with carding and the Toronto police force, which elevated his profile as a writer and an activist. Except that it’s not just the story of 2017, which is the book’s greatest strength, the way the single year frames the work, but Cole moves forward and backward in time to contextualize his stories, using experiences from his own life growing up Black in Canada, and also details from the historical record. In the book’s first section, he references an 18th century bylaw in Shelburne Nova Scotia “forbidding Negro dances and Negro Frolikcks in this town” in the story of Toronto artist John Samuels, whose gallery space was raided by the police and was physically attacked by them on the eve of the New Year 2017.

“White supremacy, which informs and fuels anti-Black racism, is an insatiable force White supremacy is never personal, never individual, never isolated. The historic problems I explore in this book are not a matter of some police being too rough or some government programs being too poorly funded, They have nothing to do with the political leaning of a particular government or the intentions of powerful people. We’re talking about a system of power that seeks to benefit white people above all others.”

You can’t make this stuff, I guess is what I mean. How a single year can be picked out of the air to demonstrate the ways the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism and white supremacy in Canada. In the school system—Cole gives examples of a six-year-old girl put into shackles by police, and the appalling behaviour (and even worse, refusal to accept responsibility for it) by a York Region school board trustee, and this is only February. In March, police officers across Canada rise up in support of an Ottawa police officer charged with fatally beating a man on his doorstep. In April, Cole leaves his column at the Toronto Star after being called out for his activism after demonstrating at a police board meeting, never mind that his white colleagues at the paper have been lauded for such things—and in this chapter, he connects police surveillance of Black and Indigenous people to a tradition of slavery, “suggesting that our very presence as free people on the street is suspicious and in need of investigation.”

In June 2017, Black Lives Matter Toronto blocks the Pride Parade in the city, and here Cole makes the connection between Black activists and the LGBTQ movement, especially pertaining to their relationships with police—and the way that Black people been left out from the story of gay rights, as symbolized by Blockarama, a celebration of Black queer culture since 1999, getting squeezed out of Pride events in favour of corporate sponsors. The Black Lives Matter protesters didn’t just “show up” to Pride, Cole shows, but instead they’ve always been there, and in 2017, they just insisted on finally taking up their space.

July is #Canada150, celebrating what Cole calls “this round number of colonial conquest.” He reaches back to 2011 to write about the advent of Idle No More, noting the parallels with Black Lives Matter, and explores the Indigenous resistance to Canada’s anniversary celebrations, including the tipi that was built on Parliament Hill (but not before RCMP officers had arrested demonstrators—are you seeing the theme?). Later that same month, Cole, who was born in Alberta and lived there until he was five, travels to Western Canada to learn more about police carding practices in the province, and learns that Indigenous women are disproportionately affected.

“My year had begun with news of a police attack on a young Black gallery owner,” writes Cole at the beginning of August. “I thought then about how attacks like this happen every day, that they are too common to be documented and investigated.” It was during summer of 2017 that media began reporting on Dafonte Miller who was brutally beaten with a pipe by an off-duty police officer and his brother in Whitby, Ontario. Miller sustained horrific injuries, and lost an eye, and for months, there was no investigation by the SIU, which is what’s called for when a police officer is involved in a death, injury or assault of a civilian. Cole would help bring the case to public attention, and also to the Toronto Police Services Board, where he’d be thrown out of a meeting and bring 100 protesters to another the following month. It would come out that the men accused of Miller’s assault were the sons of a veteran Toronto police officer who would be put under investigation himself for interfering with the investigation of his sons.

Not shockingly, police violence doesn’t end with the summer, and Cole writes about the way that racist police violence, to the majority of white Canadians, “is the cost of being ‘free'” And then later that September, he joins demonstrators to block one of Toronto’s busiest intersections to protest the deportation of of a wife and mother for overstaying her visa. “For as long as Canada has been a country, it has gone to great lengths to keep Black people out, and to deport thousands who arrive,” Cole writes. Slavery was legal in British North America until 1834, Cole reminds us, and he notes that the Underground Railroad ran both ways, and also that Black Loyalists who fled north at the Revolutionary War had their homes burned, were driven out of town in places in Nova Scotia.

“In October of 2017, the RCMP detained 1,755 people who had entered Quebec from New York State without permission from the Canadian government.” Cole makes a distinction between immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in general and those who are Black, noting that “the mass arrival of Black people to Canada has historically been marked by the strictest regulation our government can design.” In the 1950s and 1960s, a demand for cheap labour brought Black Caribbean domestic workers to Canada, and racist rules would exclude them from more lucrative professions once they’d been established here. Later that month, Cole travels to North Preston, NS, to learn about racial profiling and racist stigma in that community, and the struggle for Black life in other Canadian places. (Though this bit of the book really surprised me, because I’d only heard of North Preston through Shauntay Grant’s picture book Up Home, which paints the community as such a vibrant and special place, and I love that that’s the only story I knew.)

November was when the debate finally came to a head over community policing in Toronto schools, a situation born out of rising school violence in the early 2000s, which Cole connects to a radical change (and subsequent decrease) in the school funding formula during the 1990s—which seems incredibly pertinent at a moment right now in 2020 when Ontario teachers are standing up again even more cuts to education for a system who hasn’t seen a proper investment in decades, and underlines the urgency of their fight. A cheaper solution than investment, however, was putting unarmed police officers in schools, which made schools unsafe and welcome to many Black students. In 2009, a student was arrested in his school hallway for not identifying himself to an officer. It would take years of protest, but finally in November 2017, the SRO program in the Toronto District School Board was finally abolished. (It remains in the Catholic Board).

“…so much of the public conversation surrounding our work focuses on what we call ourselves and on what right we have to speak and act as we do. People who have time for these questions are dodging much more important ones: What is the purpose of activism? What are we all responsible for in the world, whether we call ourselves activists or not?”

Cole writes about an invitation to be part of the National Black Canadians Summit, which turns out to be very much an establishment operation and committed to the status quo, which Cole is having none of. While in the company of Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, Cole speaks out about the risk of deportation for Abdoul Abdi, a 23 year old refugee from Somalia serving a prison term. Abdi had come under the wardship of the state at age 7, who would have been the only entity with the authority to apply for his citizenship, which never happened. That he should be deported years later to a dangerous place he barely knows (and where known members of racist skinhead organizations had served in the Canadian military two decades before, when a group of soldiers had tortured a teenage boy to death—facts that are not so far outside the frame) seems obviously immoral, wrong and dangerous. Cole had learned about Abdi from his friend, Halifax writer (and former Poet Laureate!) El Jones, who has worked with incarcerated people in Nova Scotia, and unsurprisingly they do not receive a helpful response from the Minister, but with help from other activists (“They say luck happens when opportunity meets preparation.”) continue the fight to keep Abdi in Canada, bringing the issue right to the Prime Minister.

2017 was not special. This is the point of the book. That anti-Black racism is so entrenched in Canadian society that a single year contains so many stories of its insidious threads, but it was also a turning point as Black activists met with successes and had their messages amplified. Or we might hope so—though Cole doesn’t tie the story up on a bow, or end on a note of optimism. The fight goes on. Another month, another year.

February 6, 2020

Don’t Look Down, by Hilary Davidson

Oh, give me a great novel in February, a book to get lost in, a book that has me spending the whole day anticipating the point when I can get back to it and find out what’s going to happen next, because I’ve got absolutely no idea. New York-based Canadian crime writer Hilary Davidson’s latest novel, Don’t Look Down, was that book for me this week, such an absolute pleasure.

It begins with Jo Greaver, the young CEO of a successful cosmetics company, who’s on her way to a dilapidated apartment building for a meeting with whomever has been blackmailing her with photos and videos from her troubled past. She’s got a bagful of cash and she’s also got a gun, and then the encounter turns violent, she’s got no choice but to use it, escaping down the fire escape to save her life.

When NYPD Detective Sheryn Sterling arrives on the case, it all looks pretty simple. There’s a dead guy and he’s got Jo Greaver’s card in his pocket. When Greaver finally surrenders to authorities, all the pieces seem to line up, and she’s going to be charged with the murder of Andray Baxter, the man whose body was found in the apartment. But of course, nothing is simple and Sheryn Sterling knows that. She’s also still thinking about her teenage son who had the day before been arrested at a protest against the deportation of illegal immigrants. The thirst for her justice that drives her, Sheryn knows, could get her son into all kinds of trouble, and as a Black policewoman and as the mother of a Black boy, the stakes for her are very complicated.

Don’t Look Down is the kind of book you can point to when people cry CENSORSHIP at scrutiny of how stories about characters who are Black or people of colour are being told (and by whom). Because the fact is not that a white author can’t do it, but instead that she has to do it so well, and I think that Davidson really does in this novel, which engages smartly and thoughtfully with race and racism. White is not the default for Davidson’s characters, which a reader would expect from any halfway decent novel set in New York City—Sterling’s partner is Latinx, a key witness is Thai, Jo Greaver’s vice-president is Chinese-American, her lawyer has a Japanese surname. (This is just a handful of examples.) These choices are thoughtful and interesting, and a reflection of the world as it is.

The story is twisty and absorbing, and I had no idea how it was all going to turn out. Deftly plotted, it did not even begin to get a little bit silly and over-the-top until close to the end, which is altogether forgivable. The writing was great, dialogue fun and snappy, and the pacing never missed a beat. Don’t Look Down was delightful, and everything I want in a read.

February 4, 2020

Discovering Emily

“Everybody loves Anne, but I like Emily. She’s dark.” —Russian Doll

It was a year ago now that I was swept along in the enthusiasm for the Netflix series Russian Doll, starring Natasha Lyonne, a strange and enigmatic show in which the novel Emily of New Moon featured as a major plot point. Which was just as weird and curious as everything about the show, and it put Emily on my radar for the first time in years. Emily, a second-tier Anne of Green Gables, I’d always supposed, the case not helped by the cover of the Seal paperback that featured prominently in my childhood, which is basically just Anne with different coloured braids.

This specific copy is stolen from the library of the school where I attended Grade 7 and 8. I am not sure exactly if I was the thief, but somehow this ended up in a box in my mom’s basement and I brought it home not long ago, because of Russian Doll.

In childhood, Emily was wasted on me. I know that I read the whole series because I’m now just one chapter away from rereading Emily of New Moon (have been reading it aloud to my family for the past couple of months) and remember parts of the story from when Emily is a bit older, which is mainly her totally gross relationship with the much-older Dean Priest. I know I read the whole series, because I was an L.M. Montgomery completist, but it mostly just left me with questions. Like what was up with Dean Priest? (Upon reread, I still don’t know the answer to this.) Where exactly was Stovepipe Town? And “the flash.” I didn’t understand “the flash.” Emily of New Moon was Anne of Green Gables, but weirder. Emily is dark—Russian Doll was right. And as a young reader, I didn’t have the understanding to appreciate that, or to appreciate the novel properly at all.

But it’s so good. The takeaway from our family read is this. The number of times I’ve come to the end of a paragraph and stopped reading, and everybody starts yelling at me, “No, no. Come on! Keep going! What happens next?” The story itself a bit overwrought and melodramatic, but not to the detriment of the reader’s enjoyment. And not without a sense of humour either—when Emily eats the poisoned apple! The ghost in the walls at Nancy Priest’s house! A cast of characters so firmly realized that when the narrative notes that Perry Miler would be the leader of Canada one day, my children asked me if this had actually transpired. And I don’t want to knock Anne, but Emily’s friends are so much more interesting that Diana. Foul-mouthed Ilse Burnley (and the mystery of her runaway mother), and Perry (who in one scene hangs naked from the kitchen ceiling), and Teddy Kent with his suffocating mother who drowns his cats because she can’t bear that he loves anything but her.

Emily is a fantastic character, up there with Harriet M. Welch as a person whose boldness and will I’d like to channel. Where Anne Shirley was desperate for love and to be liked, Emily has spent most of her childhood in the care of a doting father who gave her a remarkable inheritance, an indelible sense of herself. She knows her worth and her value, and when others don’t, she sees it more as a reflection on them than on her. Even when she arrives at New Moon, where she is an outsider (her mother years ago had run away from her family there to marry her father), she is able to draw on the traditions of her mother’s family and their heritage to further shape her own identity. She knows who she is, and where she came from, which gives her an impressively strong foundation to build her self upon.

Her steadfastness is so admirable, and curious in a child. There is an uncannyness to her character that makes even the most sensible grown-ups uncomfortable, and this tension makes for fascinating reading. And so does the action—Montgomery channels the same gothic darkness here that made her The Blue Castle so delicious, but the novel is also filled with light and the pleasures of everyday. I love the chatty and mundane letters Emily has written to her late father, which reminded me of my favourite parts of another Montgomery novel I loved, The Road to Yesterday (in fact The Golden Road! The LM Montgomery Society kindly corrected me on Twitter) in which a group of cousins put together a newspaper. And I think Aunt Elizabeth might be my favourite Montgomery character since Marilla Cuthbert.

January 31, 2020

Perfect Pockets

I had the coziest reading week last week, with a backlog of books I wanted to review, and therefore I had to slow down with my reading, to spend some quality time with just one book while my reviewing got caught up. And the book I chose was The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai, which I had been on the verge of purchasing over and over again since it came out in 2018. I’d read her previous novel years ago, and found it middling, which made me wary of picking up this one, but there was nothing middling about its acclaim so I finally broke and bought it when I was at Hunter Street Books in Peterborough the other week, when I’d entered the store at five minutes before closing. And then I sat down to read it a few days later, and I’m so glad I read it the way I did, slow and easy, instead of in a hurry. It’s a giant, sprawling, ambitious story that’s maybe a bit too ambitious—as was her last book. But this one used that largeness and packed it with substance, with stuff, and even though I found some of the art stuff and connections to Paris in the 1920s a *bit* of stretch, still it stretched without breaking, and the connection worked. And her portrayal of the AIDs crisis in the 1980s was literally stunning, so devastating—and she wrote about it so beautifully. (See Makkai’s essay, “Writing Across Difference”, about how she—a straight woman—wrote successfully from the perspective of a gay man.) It was such a pleasure to not have to read the novel with a critical eye, but just to get lost in it—and I did. One of those reading experiences I will not soon forget, such a perfect pocket in time.

January 29, 2020

The Towers of Babylon, by Michelle Kaeser

I am just old enough to be wary of a novel whose plot is described as “track[ing] a group of hapless Millennials trying to find meaning in a world that consistently rejects them,” but am I ever glad I overcame such aversions to read Michelle Kaeser’s debut novel, The Towers of Babylon, whose characters are as complicated and wonderful as its exquisitely Toronto setting.

The novel—split into four sections—begins with Joly, whose advanced degrees in creative writing have left her interviewing for the same barista job she had in high school. She’s living with her brother in East End Toronto, writing stories that delight her but whose publications don’t even pay peanuts, and then she finds out that she’s pregnant, which was always going to be complicated, but in particular because her partner is Ben, once a philosophy student, always a social-anarchist, but now he’s got a job at the local bagel place and the house he shares with a group of roommates is about to be condemned. When she tells him she’s knocked up, he’s already drunk on his home brew, but isn’t too drunk to realize that a baby isn’t possible. And Joly doesn’t even really want a baby either, but she longs for a life where it might even be a question. “Now that she’s stormed through the door of thirty, the abortion instinct doesn’t ring out quite as loudly as it once did.”

The reader meets Joly’s best friend Lou in the novel’s first section, when Lou counsels Joly through the shock of her positive pregnancy test. On the surface, Lou seems to have it all together. She has a successful career (albeit a ridiculous one, as is obligatory in our time—she markets to marketers, selling space on billboard) and is married, living in her childhood home in the suburbs, which she purchased from her father. But all is not right, because she insists the house be preserved in time, from the era decades ago just before her mother died of cancer. And all is not serene in Lou’s marriage, as the reader will discover, and her career is at a breaking point. She’s got a better CV, but her situation is not all that improved over Joly’s.

And then Ben, Joly’s boyfriend, who should be the most charmless literary character I’ve read in ages (he calls Joly “doll” and when Joly tells him about her pregnancy, he asks her, “Can you even carry my mighty seed? Look at you. Look at me. Your runty frame would split right open!”) but there’s something endearing in his approach, and in his clumsy love and affection for Joly, and for his idealism and insistence upon it, as he lectures the Priest at his Anglican church on how to deliver her sermons, or causes trouble at the bagel place by agitating for workers’ rights and trying to start a union.

Religion plays a important part in the novel, as the title would suggest, and the Toronto skyline (the CN Tower in particular) underline the symbolism of this society in decline that Kaeser is writing about. And while sometimes the Tower of Babylon references read a bit too heavy-handed, the novel’s consideration of religion is nuanced and interesting, invoking more questions than answers about why these characters are turning to age-old superstition to put meaning into their lives. The novel is ambivalent about the role of religion in the modern world, presenting Ben and Lou as people who find meaning in faith, and then Joly’s brother Yannick, who completes the quartet and who is furious that his wife is insisting on their daughter’s baptism. For Yannick, religion doesn’t fill the void, but it doesn’t mean the void isn’t there as he gambles away his future on an all-consuming career in private equity and a passionless marriage. He doesn’t know how to solve the puzzle any more that anyone else in the novel does.

While The Towers of Babylon doesn’t offer solutions, however, what it does properly is entertain with robust and rollicking prose (the novel’s editor is the amazing Rosemary Nixon, and it shows), and offer a disquieting but still splendid illustration of life at a specific and anxiety-ridden moment in time. That its characters manage to be as lovable as they are flawed is a significant literary achievement, I think, and so is the fact that while the story is hard-hitting and unflinching, it also reads up a pleasure.

January 27, 2020

Big: Stories About Life in Plus-Sized Bodies, by Christina Myers

The problem, when we talk about fatness—and body image, and body positivity, and health, and self-acceptance, and fatphobia and discrimination, and diet culture, the experience of feeling fat, and the experience of being fat, and so much more—is that we’re talking about a hundred different things and experiences, and that even though one thing often seems like it’s the flip-side of another—fat and skinny, for example—reality itself is more textured and complicated, and intersects with all kinds of ideas about race, and class, and gender.

Textured and complicated, however, are the perfect conditions for an interesting anthology, and this is why Big: Stories About Life in Plus-Sized Bodies, edited by Christina Myers, is such a rich and rewarding read. Sometimes anthologies themselves can be too heavy (not a pun, really, and I mean in terms of tone and length) but this one is designed to be inherently readable—and speaking of design, I love the cover.

Most contributors are women, though non-binary and genderqueer writers are also are present, and writer Tracy Manrell (who identifies as non-binary transmasculine) writes fascinatingly of the differences between being fat in a male and a female body.

Many writers consider relationships to weight that stretch back to childhood, and chart the long journey to learning to love their bodies. Others write about discrimination receiving health care, or about parenthood and pregnancy, or the simple challenge of finding clothes to fit.

Award winning humour writer Cassie Stocks writes about her love of fashion and deciding to sew her own clothes. Sonja Boon inventories the black articles of clothing in her closet. Jo Jefferson tells their story through swimsuits. Lynne Jones writes about abusive relationships. Jessie Blair struggles with gastric surgery. Amanda Scriver shares her journey toward radical self-love. Emily Allan writes “Ten Things I Love About Being Fat.” Other favourites are Heather M Jones “My Superpower is Invisibility,” Christina Myers’ “Fat Girl’s Guide to Eating and Drinking,” Andrea Hansell on battling with Spanx, Tara Mandarano on health struggles and her weight, and Susan Alexander on getting over decades of binge eating.

Big is definite worth picking up because it succeeds at its editor’s goal of being a book that “makes you ask questions: about the way you think and talk about your own body and other people’s bodies, about the world we live in and its lessons and obsessions, and about the words we use and how they shape us.”

January 23, 2020

Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid

And my catch-up of reviews of popular American books that everyone else read months ago concludes with Kiley Reid’s debut novel, which only came out a couple of weeks ago, so I’m back on top of things. A novel that caught my attention with a stunning cover, so many readers raving about it on Instagram, and that title, Such a Fun Age, which is a phrase I find so cloying—but also such a perfect ironic statement upon the moment in which we live.

So here’s the story: after a late night emergency, Alix Chamberlain calls her babysitter to take her three-year-old daughter, Briar, out of the house for a while. The babysitter is Emira, who’s Black, a 25-year-old college grad who feels stuck in a rut while all her friends’ careers are beginning to ascend. But she loves Briar, and knows she’s good at caring for her, and feels protective of the child too, because she can sense how Briar’s quirks make her mother uncomfortable, the way they mess with Alix’s efforts toward a picture perfect veneer. With Emira, though, Briar can be her strange old self, and the pair are dancing in the aisle of the upscale supermarket in the Chamberlain’s neighbourhood, Emira with her friend and dressed for the night out that Alix’s urgent call had just summoned her from, and a shopper (that lady?) decides that something doesn’t look right with this situation. Calling on the store security guard, who tell Emira she’s not allowed to leave the store with the child, and the whole thing is caught on video by another shopper in the store.

If this were an issue-driven novel (“a book about race in America”) this episode would be the point on which everything turns, but instead it’s just the beginning. And Emira herself is not terribly rattled by what happened in the store that night, because she’s got other things on her plate, and the reality of being Black in America is hardly novel to her anyway after 25 years of it. But Alix, Emira’s boss, is obsessed with the incident, and comes to feel the same about Emira herself, determined to help her, to save her, thinking she knows her well (she checks the texts on Emira’s phone after all), the babysitter’s well-being becoming a project that fills her spare time, which has been considerably more ample since Alix she’d failing to write the book she signed a contract for. (Alix has cobbled together a curious kind of career, the kind of career only a white woman could have, in which she writes letters to companies and asks for things, and they send them to her, and then she reviews them on her blog. She gets speaking opportunities and talks about feminism and agency, and is hoping for an in with Hillary Clinton’s campaign as a kind of legitimizing force, because Alix’s isn’t dumb, and knows her brand is 90% shadow and illusion.)

Such a Fun Age was reviewed in the New York Times the other week, and the review was less than flattering, calling the book “soapy,” as though that were a bad thing. By soapy, the reviewer really means readable, and it is. And it’s true that there’s a plot twist in the form of a connection between Alix and Emira that’s just a little too tidy. But what the reviewer missed is how a novel that’s so eminently readable can also be so well crafted (bumpy plot aside). The dialogue in this book is incredible, and the group scenes (a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner in particular) are so excellently orchestrated that would-be novelists could use this novel as a handbook. It’s a soapy-ish novel that manages to surpass its subject matter, to be about so much more than what it’s purported to be about. A pleasure to read and so smart at once, and utterly, bewitchingly, unsettling.

January 22, 2020

The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner

My week of catch-up reviews of popular American novels everybody else read ages ago—I NEVER promised to be a blogger with her finger on the pulse—continues with Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, a novel I had zero interest in until I heard him on the since dearly departed podcast, The Cut on Tuesday—with his mother, no less. His mother who is Harriet Lerner, author of the iconic 1980s self-help book, The Dance of Anger, and we learn that she is fictionalized in her son’s new book, with her own point of view, even. And that The Topeka School is connected to Ben Lerner’s two previous novels about Adam Gordon, who is a literary representation of Lerner himself, and this new novel takes him back to his roots, to 1997, as 18-year-old Adam makes his way through his final year of high school, aspires to the highest echelons of school debate championship, having grown up in the state that gave the world Bob Dole who’d gone up against the beleaguered Bill Clinton in 1996 and lost. This is not a straightforward narrative, moving back and forth in time and between perspectives—Adam’s, his father’s, his mother’s, and a troubled classmate whom Adam had grown up with but who socially and intellectually falls behind, a ticking time bomb. The novel a study of male rage and anger, drawing connections between debate and rap stylings, and also to the national discourse, whose divisiveness begins heating up at this point until it boils over into the mess we have today.

January 21, 2020

Fleishman Is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

I was going to say that I don’t know how I missed out on the Fleishman Is In Trouble hype, except it occurs to me that I totally do. I didn’t know anything about its author, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, first of all, a seasoned magazine writer, so her name wouldn’t have led me to pick the book up (especially since her name is Taffy, which is the funniest name since Flossie). And besides, she’d written a novel about a man in the spiral of a midlife crisis and the only thing I’d care about less than that is the story of a young man coming of age (ugh), so I just didn’t bother.

But then people kept posting about the novel on Instagram, and all the posts had comments from other people who’d read the book and loved it, so I was curious. So curious that I eventually put the book on hold at the library, except that I was more than 500th on the holds list… Which came up in conversation when my daughter was sitting on my lap one Sunday morning and we were reading over the 2019 New York Times top 100 list together—she likes to practice her reading. My husband overheard me commenting about my interest in the book, and the library hold situation, and had a brilliant idea—so I got the book for Christmas.

And by Boxing Day, I’d read the whole thing.

The novel is like a roller coaster, powered by fury, and the reader is flying by the seat of their pants from the first few pages. Fleishman of the title is Toby Fleishman, a successful doctor whose success will never compare to his high-flying talent agent wife’s—they’re getting divorced anyway. And New York, in the decade and a half since Toby was last single, has become a city packed with women who are seemingly desperate to have sex with him, which is certainly novel. It’s almost enough to make him get over his long time body image issues and insecurity due to his (lack of) height—but not quite.

But when Toby’s ex-wife, Rachel, drops off his kids one night and disappears, it puts a cramp in his style, not to mention makes arranging childcare difficult at a pivotal moment at work—Toby is up for a promotion. And this is just one more crime to add to the list of unforgivable things that Rachel has done over the course of their life together. Rachel, it seems, is a heinous bitch.

Sounds straightforward enough, right? And this novel starts off in the tradition of legendary male authors whose smutty books about fragile egos, hissy fits, and emotionally tumultuous love affairs about got to be literature because their narrators had penises. But then something strange happens, which is the appearance of a first person narrator who has been telling the story of Toby Fleishman all along. Like a reporter, even, which is not so surprising when it emerges that the narrator is the most unobstrusive Libby, a friend who’d met Fleishman twenty years before on their year abroad in Israel. And now, after many years and post-break-up, Fleishman has reached out to his old pals to help absorb the shock of his new life. Libby is, in fact, a reporter who finally quit work after the birth of her second child and has settled down for stay-at-home momhood in the supports, a situation which she is, shall we say, conflicted about. But where exactly is Libby coming from?

And this, sneakily and strangely, becomes the central question of the novel, which also eventually comes to fill in the mystery of where Rachel has been in her weeks-long absence, after Libby runs into her in a bagel place looking strangely dishevelled. A novel whose furious narrator writes about the invisibility of women, and how nobody ever listens to women’s stories anyway, unless there’s a man at their centre.

Which is shocking and profound, and the reader is implicated in this in the most terrific way, and the resolution to all this is never going to be tidy. It’s not simply a matter of Rachel’s story setting the record straight, or Libby even being capable of being objective about the situations she’s been presented with, because she has her own agenda. The peculiarity of this novel, an odd three-headed beast, being that it’s not one person who is the victim here, or even everyone. Or maybe it’s that it’s everybody and no one, and that life is too complicated for such obvious designations, and journalism often doesn’t seem up to the task of addressing these matters these days, but maybe here is where fiction comes in.

January 8, 2020

A Delicious, Meandering Journey

‘Interestingly, I find myself leaping/flipping/scrolling past the “best of” lists and instead gravitating more and more to the reflections about reading as exploration, revelation, often deliciously meandering journey, shared experience, opportunity to bust out of staid categories and forge new ones … and more.’ —Vicki Ziegler

Sometimes I think I spend my whole year reading just go get to this point, when the best-of lists are compiled, required reads for book club or review assignments are completed, when the literary year is done and dusted…but there’s still at least a week of time for reading left.

Which is when I turn off my WiFi, take an internet break, out-of-office reply—”I’ll get back to you in the new year.” And I sit down to read.

I read differently in the holidays, when the working is all done. Instead of new releases (because I don’t want to miss a thing), I turn to yellowed paperbacks purchased at book sales, back-list titles by authors I love, strange books plucked from Little Free Libraries, and rescued from the streets. Books that are easy not to make a priority in my literary year, but on holiday, they take precedent—and my reading life is so much more interesting for it.

They weren’t all winners—after having now read two books by Ottessa Moshfegh, I think I can finally conclude that her work is just not to my taste, for example. But altogether, these books were part of why my holiday was so lovely—and I loved too their connections, how they spoke to one another, as though book after book was just one book, and the story flowed and almost made sense.

Of course, it wasn’t all obscure. Ben Lerner’s new novel, The Topeka School, is one of the top rated books of 2019, and I bought it after hearing Lerner and his mother Harriet Lerner (author of iconic book The Dance of Anger) on a podcast. Hot tip: if you want to me to buy a book by a man, make him fictionalize his feminist mother in that book and even give her a point of view. I’d already tried to read The Topeka School twice, but had been diverted, not because anything was wrong with it, but other books kept showing up before I got to page 12. Finally got past page 12 (third time’s charm) and really liked this one, and had my mind-scrambled by its meta-ness. It was such a curious and interesting book, which captures a cultural moment (1997) that was pivotal in my own experience (I turned 18 that year, and the memories are very vivid) and connects that moment in several ways to our present.

I also read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, another top book of 2019, and am so glad I did—plus it reminded me of Jesmyn Ward’s 2018 Sing Unburied Sing, I loved the depiction of 1970s’ New York, and oh, the twist. The book is brutal, but there is more to the novel than just that.

The third 2019 book I read was Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, which I got for Christmas. I never get books for Christmas, because I’m very much a self-directed book buyer—but my husband heard me talking about how I was more than 500th on a wait-list for this book at the library, and bought it for me. And I loved it so much. Probably deserves a post of its own, but yes, it had everything and was so devourable—by Boxing Day, I’d got to the end.

Had very much a New York streak going on, especially between the Brooklyn of Lerner’s book and Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary, and Fleishman and My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

And then I left town to finally finish Elizabeth McCracken’s Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry, her first book re-released along with her latest, the novel Bowlaway (a novel that was delicious and meandering itself, and also one of my favourite books of the year). The mingling humour and sadness—she’s such an incredible writer.

And then Woolf’s Night and Day, which I bought in the summer after I saw an ad on Instagram for a 1970s version of the novel whose cover I fell for. It’s always funny to be reading early Woolf, back when her narrative style was so conventional. The characters were a bit wooden, and the story more about ideas than its people actually being realized, but it was still really enjoyable, and Woolf after all.

And speaking of conventional, Penelope Fitzgerald is conventional never, but The Beginning of Spring (which I finished reading on the morning of New Year’s Eve) is perhaps the most straightforward of her novels that I have read. (As I’ve written before, learning to appreciate Penelope Fitzgerald is a project of mine.) I like to read a bit of Penelope Fitzgerald during the holidays out of nostalgia for the year I read her biography by Hermione Lee, which was one of the best reading extravaganzas I have ever had. Anyway, The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in 1913, and this reviewer calls it Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. I really loved it.

Before the year was out, I had also finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, a book she wrote in Italian about the experience of learning and then to committing to reading and writing in Italian. (Which would lead me to Natalia Ginzburg—but first!!)

First, I ended 2019 and started 2020 with At the Pond, a collection of essays (a gift from my friend Nathalie) about swimming at London’s Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, contributors including two of my favourite swimlit stars (Leanne Shapton and Jessica J. Lee) AND my very favourite everything, Margaret Drabble. Nice to be returned to the London of Night and Day, although Katharine Hilbery never went swimming.

(On New Year’s Eve, Stuart and I both had Taylor Swift’s “London Boy” in our head, which is a terrible song, the situation exacerbated by the London locations of our respective reads [Stuart is LOVING Girl Woman Other, which, incidentally, was the second book I broke up with Ben Lerner for] and every time anyone in my book mentioned Highgate, I’d start singing, “…And I love his best mate. All the rumours are true…”)

Two things I loved about At the Pond: cultural diversity of the authors made it such a more interesting collection than it might have been. And the essay by nonbinary writer So Mayer on their complicated relationship with the space “for women only”—which has long welcomed transwomen among them without fuss, save for the activists who showed up at a recent community meeting in furor about this.

Then I read The Secret Sisterhood, about women’s literary friendships, which I bought in March on a weekend in Niagara on the Lake with my two best friends of more than a quarter century. The Jane Austen chapter was a bit slight, but I enjoyed the book and nice to bring things around with the final section on Woolf and Katherine Mansfield—especially since it focussed at lot on Night and Day (which Mansfield wrote a scathing review of, which made their friendship at bit…awkward).

And finally, All Our Yesterdays, by Natalia Ginzburg, the kind of book that it might be possible to put off reading forever, because it’s old with an unappealing cover, and pages and pages of dense text. I’d bought it at a colleage book sale last year after reading Gizburg’s essay collection Little Virtues, but novel sat unread on my shelf. And then I gave it away to my local Little Free Library, which I regretted after running into an Italian-Canadian friend at the library who was returning a pile of Ginzburg’s novels in their original language. She extolled the authors virtues, so when I happened to walk by the Little Free Library and saw All Our Yesterdays up for grabs, I stole it back. Finally cracking it open now because Jhumpa Lahiri had also written about Ginzburg, and it seemed like a sign.

I loved this book. Sweeping, strange, curious and compelling, it’s the story of two families in Northern Italy and how they change as WW2 arrives and continues. The narrative is very matter-of-fact and understated, creating a sense of inevitability (it actually reminded me a but of Girl Woman Other, how a single story can contain so much and so broadly). The banality of living under Fascism, and then occupied Italy after the Germans arrive, and the casual brutality of war.

Now I really want to track down a copy of Ginzburg’s Family Sayings, which won the Strega Prize and which seems to be cited as her best work. (PS Just found out it’s in print with the title Family Lexicon. YAY!!)

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