August 18, 2014
Caroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces is the novel we’ve all been waiting for. Me, because I’ve been reading pieces of Ellen in Pieces in journals and magazines for the last few years, and hearing rumours they’d culminate in an actual book, and how often are one’s longings so perfectly satisfied? And you’ve been waiting for this book, because I promise that it’s one of the best you’ll read this year. Devastating, wonderful and brilliant. Because aren’t you always looking for a book to apply such adjectives to? Because I’ve been longing to read this book for years, and when I did, it was even better than I’d hoped.
It’s a novel in stories, or a collection of linked stories, or maybe a novel comprised of fragments, which is more like a life is than most novels I’ve ever read. The first three “chapters,” I’d read previously, and through which I’d become entranced with Adderson’s character, Ellen McGinty, divorced, determined, blundering, flawed, impulsive, hated, and loved. Because it’s rare to encounter such a character in fiction, a woman in the middle years of her life, a woman who is not a type, who has history, is unsure of what to do with her present, who has a body, experiences lust, gets tired, loves her children, cannot stand her children, has friends, fights with her friends, who is herself with such remarkable specificity—”Ellenish” is a term applied at one point in the book, and I knew exactly what they meant. It is rare that a character is so vividly realized—so familiar and yet utterly original at once.
Caroline Adderson pays attention to words, which are as specific as her characters. No one else would write a sentence like, “A melting weakness overtook her and she remembered all those years ago, not here but in Ellen’s North Vancouver kitchen, how he glissaded out of the way so Georgia could set down her platter of blintzes.” A platter of blintzes—has there ever been such a thing? The world reinvented through Adderson’s extraordinary, euphonic vocabulary.
In the first chapter, “I Feel Lousy”, Ellen discover that her younger daughter, not even the disappointing one, is pregnant, which evokes memories of her own troubled past, an accidental pregnancy with her ex-husband, the terrible, awful burden of motherhood, single motherhood in particular, and the lengths that a mother will go to—this mother in particular—for her daughter’s sake. “Poppycock” finds us a few years into the future, Ellen’s estranged father on her doorstep, obviously suffering from some kind of malady and she’s horrified to find him but also bowled over because he wants her, he needs her. She’d assumed her family had written her off altogether since she’d tried to sleep with her brother-in-law at her father’s 50th birthday years before. But the past, just like the present, turns out to be more complicated than that, and the reappearance of her father is a gift that comes with a shadow, a particularly long one.
And if you think that ending is devastating, read “Ellen-Celine, Celine-Ellen” next, about Ellen and her two friends whose relationship was forged at pre-natal class years ago, Ellen all alone because her asshole husband Larry had just abandoned her (the first time). The three stay close in the decades to follow, Ellen and Celine taking a trip to Europe together, which is ill-advised, so say their other friend, Georgia, and also Ellen’s hairdresser, Tony, because Ellen and Celine spend much of their friendship not being able to stand each other, a situated not mitigated by their strong personalities, and also that of the three friends who’d met in pre-natal class, it had been Celine’s baby that died.
Have I conveyed that these stories of death and crisis, all the drama of a life, are also funny? Adderson portrays human behaviour at the intersection of heroism and buffoonery, or else just irritability, to much effect. There’s a subtlety at work here. There are lines that are going to come along and break your heart.
The next few stories are more concerned with the present, pieces fitting more closely together. Ellen begins to find herself—her daughters are settling down, or else calming down; she sells her house; she takes up pottery again; after years of searching, she is learning to be present. She also starts sleeping with a young man who is her daughters’ age, which doesn’t hurt. She thinks she’s beginning to get over her ex-husband, Larry, whose desertion has wrung her heart for years and years.
One chapter is from the point of view of Matt, Ellen’s young lover, who is using Ellen to escape from his own troubled domestic situation. Another by Ellen’s older daughter, Mimi, who has overcome her problems with addiction but is still searching for something to hold onto, and still running from her mother too, whose presence is still vividly felt even from halfway across the country in Toronto, currently in the midst of a garbage strike. (Mimi traces back most of her problems to having once discovered her mother in bed with her grade-five teacher, whom she’d been in love with. Until that point.) Another word in this chapter, “orrery”, which recurs at the end of the story as Mimi rolls down a car window using a similar device. “She saw the moon, the faint stars vying for attention against the glare of human habitation. Pluto was up there somewhere, that small cold outcast planet far away. But there were people who still believed in it, people who wished it well.”
If the story doesn’t devastate you, I promise that the prose will.
At the end of this chapter, Mimi finally gets an inkling of why her mother is who she is, with the aid of a handy Bryan Adams lyric. Maternal ambivalence is a two-way street, and Adderson’s is a gut-wrenching depiction of its flip side. And then in the next chapter, “Mother-eye—the curse cast on every birthing woman, the hex of self-sacrificing empathy. I will see your pain, but you will never see mine.”
It’s at the end of this chapter when Ellen is diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’m going to tell you this, tell you this straight: Ellen dies.
I am telling you this because it’s revealed anyway in a tiny sentence on the back of the book (“…we watch Ellen negotiate the last year of her tumultuous life as the pieces of who she is finally come together.”), and in the epigraph as well, and I am telling you this because if you aren’t prepared, it might just be too terrible to take. When was the last time an author dared to kill off the central character in her novel and not even at the end of her novel…
…and of course, Virginia Woolf did, in To the Lighthouse, which I read last month, and which I see as having all kinds of parallels with Adderson’s book, although the two vary greatly in style (and Adderson’s prose is devourable, while Woolf’s must be savoured in measured portions). The notion of “time passes” and that we see a character through the eyes of those around her, the mixture of love and dislike and what lies between which makes up most relationships, and she isn’t even knowable to herself, because who has ever been so pinned down? That she a person whom people assemble around, in all her flaws and fallibility. If she is a solar system, here is the sun, and what happens after the light goes out?
The death scene is sublime, written from the perspective of Ellen’s young grandson, who has his own problems, and when I came to the paragraph break, I put down the book and sobbed and sobbed, and had to go find someone to comfort me—it’s rare that text on a page is ever this affecting. I was devastated, but also amazed at the beauty of the scene, of Adderson’s writing—it was perfect. Masterful.
In the final stories of the book, Ellen’s friends and family gather around her, offering richer perspectives on the scenes we’ve already read. I was especially besotted with “The Something Amendment,” from the perspective of Georgia, who is the third in Ellen’s friendship with Celine. We’ve previously known Georgia through her telephone conversations with Ellen, her jolly husband Gary chiming in from the background. As ever, however, the reality of life is more complicated than can be discerned from down a telephone wire, and Georgia’s own relationship with Ellen is different from even what Ellen suspects, and one of the great achievements of Adderson’s book, I think, is her rich portrayal of decades-long female friendships, the betrayals and compromises that are implicit in such relationships.
If I have to go out of my way to find a criticism of the book, it would be that the Ellen herself is so compelling that the chapters in which she’s at a distance are not as much—the half-grownness of Ellen’s lover is so bland compared to the presence of Ellen in her prime, although the characterization of him at home with his family is vivid, rich and surprising. Or maybe it’s just that I think that Ellen could have done better?
I don’t hate that she died. I wish she hadn’t, but I also didn’t feel like Adderson was using cancer or death as a plot device, to manipulate her characters or (worse!) to manipulate her reader. If its confrontation with cancer and mortality, Ellen in Pieces is a companion to Oh, My Darling by Shaena Lambert, which I read last year (and Lambert is thanked in Adderson’s acknowledgements; they share a publisher). It’s a brave take on things, really, but typical, because the exquisite nature of the entire book comes from Adderson defying her readers’ expectations, surprising you with every line, with every turn of the page.
August 7, 2014
If not for the internet, I never would have heard of Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken. But the wonderful Sara O’Leary had wonderful things to say about it on Twitter, and then it was this post from the Parnassus Books blog that clinched it, the line, “I would rather be funny than just about anything.” So I ordered a copy, and was disappointed to have to put it aside before we departed on vacation last week, because its first line was, “Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees.”
Not that the book is funny, exactly, or that McCracken isn’t funny, because she is, but the book is more heartbreaking than anything, or maybe I mean heartwringing—it’s amazing and magnificent. Passages like, “The dead live on in the homeliest of ways. They’re listed in the phone book, They get mail. Their wigs rest of styrofoam heads at the back of closets. Their beds are made. Their shoes are everywhere.” Passages you want to underline, and annotate with, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” The most remarkable combination of specific details and universality. The whole book is like this. I loved it. (It also reminded me of the best parts of Lee Kvern’s remarkable collection, which I enjoyed earlier this year.)
The stories are unfathomable, approached from the oddest angles, but their pieces fall together in a perfect kind of sense. In “Something Amazing”, two troubled families come together in a remarkable collision that changes both of them forever. In “Property”, a widower moves into a rental house and is overwhelmed by the detritus of the house’s owner; in “Juliet”, a murder sends shock waves across a small town, in particular amongst the staff at the public library; in “The House of the Three Legged Dogs”, a British ex-pat hits rock-bottom, his house sold out from under him by his alcoholic son; in “Hungry”, a young girl stays with her grandmother while her father is critically ill in the hospital, and the grandmother must protect the girl and process her own complicated grief.
In “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston”, the discovery of a young boy shoplifting in a discount supermarket is interpreted differently by the boy himself and the supermarket manager who imagines himself the boy’s saviour. In the title story, a family tries to get away from their teenager daughter’s problems by relocating to Paris for a summer, only to discover that her problems travel with them, to devastating effect. And the last lines of the book? The man who “…felt as though he were diving headfirst into happiness. It was a circus act, a perilous one. Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip.” And I’ve read those lines over and over, marvelling at their imagery, pondering their puzzle, their resonance, in particular in light of incidents within the story itself. Throughout the collection, these passages that strike you, suggesting deeper rumblings—the book’s title is so perfect.
Of course, I’ve outlined the plots of the collection’s various stories, but they aren’t really what the stories are about. Many of them are about grief, about the peculiarity of details during the times in life in which we’re grief-struck, or stricken at all. They’re about human connection in surprising places, about misunderstandings in which the connection is missed. Their about the things that get lost and what we choose to preserve. They’re funny even with the sadness, a many sided shape. And they’re absolutely extraordinary.
August 5, 2014
I wondered if my stack of vacation books might be a bit too ambitious, a tower too high for one week of reading. After all, I wasn’t going away for a week alone, and family togetherness was sort of the point of the endeavour. But the family was obliging with plenty of time to read. There was Iris’s two hour nap each afternoon after all, during which Harriet could watch a movie, which sort of violates cottage rules, but leads to parents’ leisure, which is Cottage Rule Number One. So everybody was happy, and I stayed in bed reading with cups of tea in the mornings (with sugar, of course), and then in the evenings once the children were in bed, Stuart also reading Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy, and therefore as avid a reader as I was (and one of the best parts of marriage, I think, is enjoying books together. Such a pleasure). Of course, our summer getaway wasn’t all about reading, as we were also busy going out for lunch, eating ice cream, lounging in our new hammock, playing in the sand, eating corn on the cob, getting slightly sunburned, having lots of fun, and buying books—we had another wonderful visit to Bob Burns’ Books in Fenelon Falls, and also perused the used book sale at the Bobcaygeon Library. After a slightly disappointing trip last summer (when our baby was new, the weather was bad, and Harriet was kind of crazy), we were pleased to find we had our vacation mojo back. The week was terrific, relaxing, so rich with hours for spending, plus we got to swim on lakes and walk barefoot on grass soaked with dew.
But the reading. Oh, the reading. Every book was just so thoroughly good.
I started reading To the Lighthouse a couple of days before we left, so this is me cheating slightly with my plan for a book a day. And I was needing a vacation so so badly, with so much going on the weeks before, my churning brain, and I was having this frustrating internal argument about “women’s fiction”, which I think is definitely a thing, a genre onto itself, wholly worthy of celebration, but is forever being used as synonym for “formulaic”, which drives me nuts, and then authors of formulaic books go around whinging because their books are being marketed as “chick lit” and complaining that all books about women and relationships are so assigned, which isn’t true anyway, and I don’t know why I care so much, but rereading To the Lighthouse is always the solution. Perhaps to everything. Nobody has called this book chick-lit ever, and perhaps we should all aspire to stretch the limits of the novel, as Woolf does in this book, which I’ve read so many times, this time reading a fresh new copy, the old one with my inane marginalia gone for good. It’s a beach read, really, because there’s even a beach on the cover, sand underfoot. A perfect holiday book. Thinking about the book in terms of arguments about characters’ likability: “How did it all work out then, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that, and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached after all?” And Mrs. Ramsay having eight children, irreconcilable with her innate sense of dread about…everything. The multitudinousness of all Woolf’s characters, each one a kaleidoscope, also each moment in time, which never stands still, not even for a moment.
And then I really was down to a book a day, though I made a terrible mistake with this one. I started reading Halfpenny by Jo Walton, whose latest novel, My Real Children, is one of my favourite books of the year so far. Halfpenny is part of her Small Change Trilogy, a series of crime novels set in an alternate history after Britain makes a peace with Germany in 1941. I started reading, immediately gripped by her fictional version of The Mitford sisters, who are very different but just as compelling as the real deal, and this plot to overthrow Britain’s government, which seems be living in Hitler’s pocket. And then I realized that there was a bit too much backstory here, and that I was reading the trilogy out of order! Halfpenny was actually the second book, after Farthing. Luckily, we’d brought Farthing along too, and the spoilers didn’t ruin the reading experience. The whole series is excellent, Walton’s Inspector Carmichael is fantastic, and her woman characters are wonderful. I’d like to foist them books onto everybody…
Next was The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam, the second in her trilogy that began with Old Filth, and ended last year with Last Friends. Old Filth was the first of her books I read, three years ago, and it wasn’t what I’d expected. Gardam has a unique style, one that’s not immediately accessible, and I’ve made a thoroughly enjoyable project of learning to appreciate her ever since. And when I read Last Friends a few months ago, I thought I’d finally had her licked. The Man in the Wooden Hat confirms this, and while this is another trilogy I’ve read out of order, it matters less here, as the whole series is anti-chronology, and I think that The Man in the Wooden Hat is the penultimate volume anyway, and now I want to read all the other books again because they’ll be so much clearer now. Gardam’s tale of Betty Flowers is heartbreaking, understated, and quite Woolfian in its grasp of the multitudinousness of things, of love. I am quite proud that I’ve finally figured out this writer (or begun to—who’d ever want to be done with such a thing?) who is revered by so many readers I admire.
Then I read Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, whom I’d never read before, and while it took me a little while to find my literary footing, once I did, I was entranced. A fairy tale ensconced in realism, subtle allusions, and a piece that becomes about itself rather than its source. As with all the books I was reading this week, nothing was ever one thing. The book was beautiful, sad, generous, and surprising. The British-born Oyeyemi a kind of literary ventriloquist, but that’s not the right term because it suggests puppets, and her people were so solidly real. Their voices too, which is my point, and also how Oyeyemi, British born, channels the American novel, its tropes and tones and New England atmosphere. I loved this book, and now I have to read her previous novel, Mr. Fox.
I read Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny after that, because I’ve become quite adamant about my connection between Louise Penny books and the cottage. To me, she’s the definition of vacation reads. I only started reading Penny with A Trick of the Light, a few books ago, so I have many unread Inspector Gamache novels before me, not even counting her latest, The Long Way Home, which is out this month. So this was a catch-up read, and I really liked it. (Stuart read an ARC of The Long Way Home this week, and predicts that I will enjoy it.)
And finally, I read Farthing. Where I probably should have started, but alas. It was so so good. Jo Walton is a tremendous writer who really deserves to be better known. A series written in the tradition of Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers, Walton explains that her historical writing is strongly linked to the present day: “Nothing is written in a vaccuum. I wrote these books during a dark time politically, when the US and the UK were invading Iraq without a Security Council resolution on a trumped up casus belli. I was brought up by my grandparents, and the defining event of their lives was WWII, it cut across them like a knife. To find a government I had voted for waging a war of aggression really rocked my expectations. If I’d been in Britain I’d have marched and protested, but I was in Canada, which kept out of that unjust war. My husband is Irish, and Ireland wasn’t doing it either. I think it was my isolation on this that went into writing these books.” The result is extraordinary. I’m reading the final book now. Will be sorry when it’s done.
August 3, 2014
My review of K.D. Miller’s wonderful story collection, All Saints, was in the Globe and Mail yesterday. I enjoyed the book so much when I read it in July, and appreciated its vital links to Lynn Coady’s Giller-winning collection, Hellgoing, as well as its Barbara Pymmishness, and the ways in which outright Pymmishness is subverted.
“…All Saints reads like a collision between Pym and Lynn Coady’s recent Hellgoing, whose epigraph is from Larkin’s “Church Going,” a poem which asks the question, “When churches will fall completely out of use/What we shall turn them into.”
The easy answer is condos – their developers are the only ones still banging on All Saints’s door. As with those in Coady’s collection, Miller’s characters are negotiating existence in a world in which the old rules and morality Pym satirized no longer apply.”
July 2, 2014
Things are busy around here with the usual summer things (swimming pools, barbecues, celebrating Canada Day at Queen’s Park, not sleeping at night, lazy days, beer and chicken wings with my husband on a rooftop patio) and with a top-secret project that is going to keep things quieter on the blog front this summer. Which is as it should be–you’re all out gallivanting anyway. But I did want to share two amazing things I’ve been up to lately in celebration of two really excellent books.
The first is All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, which I was lucky enough to review for Canadian Notes and Queries 90, their summer issue. It’s out now. The review was a pleasure to write, to be working with material that was just so good. The book is the most hilarious heartbreak I’ve ever experienced. A teaser of my review:
“While markedly different in style and tone, All My Puny Sorrows reads as an interesting companion to Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir, Wave, another book about grief and trauma, in which Deraniyagala recounts the loss of her family in the 2006 Boxing Day tsunami. Both books are haunted by narrators whose voices are measured and understated, existing to evoke the dead and the past rather than to illuminate the present, partly because the narrator in the present is a hollow shell of grief. And that grief itself remains a quiet presence in the text, until it doesn’t, bursting onto the page with a torrent of rage. Interestingly, both narrators enact their rage by making obnoxious phone calls, describing themselves as “haunting” the calls’ recipients on whom they (inappropriately, but who can blame them for that?) lay blame for their tragedies.
Unlike Wave, however, and just like everything Toews has ever written, All My Puny Sorrows is also terrifically funny. The young version of Elf is a wonderful character, with her dramatic flares and karate-chop gestures. The most hilarious scene in the book takes place at a funeral (of course) when a young child steps up and begins to eat the ashes of the deceased. Elf and Yolandi’s mother emerges as the real hero of this story, a woman of unlimited faith and optimism (and who, in shock after her daughter’s death, answers every utterance with, “Ain’t that the truth”). And this is Yolandi’s revelation as well, that all this grief has not been put upon her alone, and that her mother, in her obsession with Scrabble games and detective novels, is trying to decode the mystery of things and put words together so they mean something, just as Yolandi herself is.”
I am also very pleased with my interview with Saskatchewan Metis writer Lisa Bird-Wilson about her short story collection, Just Pretending. I read the book in early May and found it incredibly affecting. Bird-Wilson’s answers to my questions were thoughtful, challenging, provocative and profound–just as her book is. And a taste of that?
“Also, don’t you think there’s something a bit unfair about criticism that turns on the fact that stories made the critic feel bad? It’s unfortunate, but I’ve really noticed that audiences want you to read things that are funny—boy, they love that kind of thing. I find myself sometimes trying to excise funny bits from my stories and use them for readings—shame on me for bowing to the pressure but we all want to be liked, don’t we? I guess it’s human nature—we want to be able to laugh together—but in order to laugh together we also have to cry together sometimes. And sometimes we just laugh our way through the pain because there’s nothing else you can do.”
Reading the whole thing here.
June 29, 2014
The cover doesn’t lie—Marissa Stapley’s Mating for Life is the perfect novel for dockside, for reading on the beach. By which I mean it adheres to a certain formula. The ends all tie up into perfect solutions, tragedies averted. By which I also mean that it’s a pleasure to read, this novel about Helen Sear, a woman who is part Joni Mitchell, part Gloria Steinem, a former folk singer whose relationships with men throughout her life had been like the relationships fish have with bicycles, except with a lot more contact. Contact enough for her to have had three daughters with three different men, these daughters now grown and trying to reconcile their complicated family legacy. They’ve each responded differently to their mother’s example, creating their own selves from those parts of her they’d embraced or rejected. Or at least had attempted to reject—it will turn out that they’re each more like their mother than they’d previously understood, and unlike her too in ways all their own.
The novel begins at Helen’s summer cottage north of Toronto, where Liane (the youngest) is spending a week alone trying to finish her dissertation and to sort out her feelings toward her fiancé. And it was here where I began to notice something beyond a formula at work, and to be delighted by the unabashed bookishness of the narrative–a perfect novel for dockside that features people who are reading on docks. And reading specifically too–Liane notices a man at a neighbouring cottage reading at the end of his dock, something with an orange spin. She swims close enough to see that it’s Junkie by William Burroughs and she’s disappointed, plus a but disturbed. Later, rifling through the cottage library, she turns up a copy of The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff, and begins to read its wonderful first sentence…
Meanwhile, the oldest daughter, Fiona, is starting to lose it after more than a decade of trying to attain domestic perfection, trying to prove to the world that she’s nothing like her mother at all. When her husband reveals a secret from his past, the veneer of her life is cracked, and she’s not sure she can put the pieces back together. Living not far away is the middle sister, Ilsa, whose attempts to emulate her older sister’s are beginning to prove an abject failure. She’s got two small kids, a husband who ignores her, and her once-successful career as a painter is as stalled as her marriage. She starts to wonder if the spark she’s missing might be found in an affair with a former teacher, and she’s far too aware of what she’s doing when things finally cross the line.
Unbeknownst to her daughters, Helen has also embarked upon a complicated domestic arrangement. She has fallen in love with a good man who wants to marry her, which might sound uncomplicated to most women, but most women haven’t spent decades solidifying a public reputation for independent womanhood. She’s not sure whether her new feelings mark an evolution or compromise of her principles.
The chapters alternate between the points of view of Helen and her daughters, as well as those of other women–the estranged wife of the man Liane watches reading on his dock, their eldest daughter, the woman whose just the latest to shack up with the owner of the local marina, a man whose virility is legend (which she hopes might give her barren womb the boost it needs to finally make the baby she’s been longing for). Each chapter is preceded by a short paragraph on the mating habits of various wild animals, the habits reflected in the behaviour of the characters who will appear. These allusions serve to further the questions posed by the narrative about human relationships and whether their patterns are learned by nature or nurture. But they also bring the animals themselves into the story in a really interesting way that calls to mind Alissa York’s Fauna, both in the rural cottage landscape and in the city settings too.
As one would expect from a novel about a folk singer, Mating for Life is as full of musical references as it is literary ones. And speaking of the literary references, this is the only book I’ve ever read in which a major plot point hinges on a copy of the literary magazine The Malahat Review. It terms of its allusions and also its sense of place, the novel seems compellingly charged with the world in a way that is a pleasure to encounter.
The book is not without its problems—dialogue can be stilted and expository, I could have done without the thoughts in italics that underlined what Stapley’s impressive prose was already making quite clear. Sometimes the adherence to formula broke a spell, and maybe I am being nitpicky, but I spent a lot of time figuring out how the marina owner, who had grown children, could have only read one book in his life “for school” and had that book be Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, which was published in 1999. Maybe he’d gone back and got his high school equivalency, I wondered? (A possibility!). But do you know what’s so wonderful? The reference to No Great Mischief wasn’t casually made, thrown down for solid literary cred, but for its brilliant last line which I won’t reveal here for spoiler reasons, but which ties in so perfectly to everything that Mating for Life is all about. Formulaic or not, Stapley’s narrative was constructed with such care.
There are also truly splendid bits of prose. A standout line for me was, “The lake was like a garage-sale mirror, smooth but mottled.” It’s an image that has lingered in my mind.
Mating for Life is the type of summer book that I’d pass on to my mother and my sister, the way we did with Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters years ago. It’s the kind of summer book I don’t encounter so much anymore, me with my head jammed far up my literary ass and therefore unable to soak of summer books for summer books’ sake the way I once could. Because summer book or not, I need my books to be good. I need lines of prose to stick in my head and characters with three dimensions, and for the most part, Stapley delivers, showing the messy, complicated, infinite, wonderful and never-boring threads of women’s lives.
June 26, 2014
With Status Update (which was nominated for the 2014 Pat Lowther Award), Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang employs a clever device both for the purposes of her own literary inspiration and to provide her reader with a gateway to the collection. Tsiang used status updates by her Facebook friends as writing prompts for each poem, sometimes adhering to the narrative implied in the update, other times using the words or ideas therein as imaginative points of departure, Tsiang embodying the voice of the status updater in some poems and using the material of her own life in others, every time showing that social media conversation is worthy of literary concern, that Facebook statuses are just another example of the art which can be located in the corners of ordinary life.
I found this conceit really useful. A challenge I’ve encountered in reading poetry is how to grasp a collection without a theme or overarching narrative, and while the poems in Status Update are wildly disparate in approach and tone, their connections are implicit and results in compelling readability. The original status updates, which are included with each poem, also offer points of familiarity and access–many of these are memes I’ve encountered on my own Facebook feed, I recognize the names of the updaters too, who range from prominent Canadian literary figures to a boy I was in a play with in grade 8. (Tsiang and I grew up in the same town, and probably have a few Facebook friends in common. Further disclosure: she was also one of the writers in The M Word, and her essays refers to this collection, to the complicated considerations she must make in writing about and being inspired by her daughter.)
The poems themselves? They’re rarely what you would expect from the figments that inspired them. The final poem stems from a question about whether the world of Facebook can possibly be as sunny and wondrous as status updates and vacation photos would suggest, and Tsiang concludes her resulting poem with the disturbing and wonderful, “Unfold the picnic basket, / and set out the watermelon. / The adults are planning murder-suicide/ and the children are drowning in the lake.” Some poems are glosas, such as one inspired by an update by Carolyn Smart, “thinking of Bronwen Wallace and the 21 years gone by.” which is followed by four lines from Wallace’s “Coming Through”, and Tsiang’s resulting piece, which concludes with, “Lessons you have taught me by example:/ there are some people/ you could have trusted your life to/ and their death displaces you.” What a marvellous knot of literary homage–I love this.
I’m moving through the collection backwards (and note: there is an index at the end of authors of the updates that inspired each poem–I love this too) and picking out my favourites from this book which I read in order at the time. “Dave Hickey wonders if his tv misses him”, which is written in the voice of the television, each stanza imploring, “Look.” Particularly striking: “Look: the sun will kill you. So will/ fish, plastics and cell phones. I will tell you/ the cause of SIDS at five o’clock. Don’t/ put your baby down before that.”
And incredible poem is “Break Into Blossom”, which is inspired by a line from the poem “Blessing” by James Wright, in which Tsiang’s narrator contemplates the enormity of the love and loss implied by being a parent: “When she was born, the colours shifted in her eyes:/ dust to earth, as if she were becoming more solid/ within my gaze. How carelessly I held her,/ like the earth shouldering the skies./ Suddenly I realize/ all the thousands of ways I will lose/ her, and I am overcome, as by a death/ with her still sitting there, singing quietly/ to her stuffed monkey. The world is astonishing/ in this small room….”
There is lots of humour too, as well as poignance. One update inspires Tsiang to write a rejection letter to herself: “Dear Sarah, While we read your manuscript with interest, it doesn’t fit with our publishing mandate. Maybe if it had more tomatoes, ripening on the vine…” Or another poem (perhaps not funny, depending on your point of view), which begins, “The dog knows when you lie…”
Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang is a writer doing remarkable things. She’s author of some wonderful picture books (including A Flock of Shoes), non-fiction kids’ books, YA books, and editor of an anthology of Susans. (I also loved her previous collection, Sweet Devilry.) With Status Update, she shows that she’s got even more tricks in her back pocket, but also such a talent for turning words into vivid moments, and a refreshing viewpoint on the world.
June 23, 2014
“I had an abortion.” This is not a confession, but instead is the phrase with which my essay, “Doubleness Clarifies” (which was published in The M Word and online this spring) has been received by readers, more than any other, or at least it seems as such from my point of view. And these readers are not confessing either, but rather are stating a fact of their lives, a fact they seem eager to share. Like me, I suppose they’ve spent a long time feeling as though abortion stories were not to be shared, and they were grateful finally to have an excuse to talk about this fact of their lives, a fact which has been perhaps sad, complicated, maybe neither, but undeniably important.
It’s not shame that keeps women from talking about their abortions, but rather fear of seeming impolite. It’s funny that in a society in which 1/3 of adult women have had abortions and most people understand the procedure to be a necessary part of women’s health, that we kowtow to the sensibility of a minority whose vocal stance allows them to set the tone on the issue. That abortion is unseemly, dead babies, something that marks us, something which we have to hide at all costs.
All costs? The huge cost of hiding our abortion stories, of course, is that the vocal minority gets to tell us everything we know about abortions, much of which is wrong. (Increased breast cancer risks, post traumatic symptoms and regret, photos of aforementioned dead babies.) They get to influence the people who make the legislation, because the rest of us are too polite to speak up. They get to tell us everything we know about the women who have abortions too, which is that there is a type of woman this happens to and that her experiences are uniform.
With the new book, One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories, edited by Kathryn Palmateer and Martha Solomon, with a foreword by Judy Rebick, we learn that everything they told us about abortions, and the women who have them, is wrong. In striking portraits—photographs accompanied by short first-person essays—we learn that women who have had abortions are women of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. We learn than many of them are mothers. Others never wanted to be mothers, and it’s that certainty that made the decision to have an abortion quite an easy one to make. Some women look back on their abortions with mixed emotions, or sadness, grief or relief. And most of them look back and are grateful that the choice was theirs to make.
As I wrote in my essay in The M Word, reproductive freedom remains a revolutionary thing for a woman to get away with. Not because we don’t get away with it, but because when we do, we don’t talk about it. Which leaves a woman contemplating abortion or who’s had an abortion feeling that she’s so alone, that no one has ever been where she’s going and come out fine on the other side. And so that’s why a book like One Kind Word is so hugely important, representative of the real experiences of so many women. Experience as depicted by those who’ve lived it rather than those for whom abortion is an abstract moral issue—this is so significant. The book is also important because it creates a space where women who’ve had abortions can see themselves reflected, and the book provides an occasion for women to speak up and say, “This is my story too.”
One Kind Word was an online portrait gallery before it was a book, the project gaining huge momentum and inspiring so many women to be a part of it. (It also has a precedent with Jennifer Baumgardner’s Abortion and Life.) Many participants note that they felt as though they had an obligation to speak up in order to counter the abortion rhetoric which has been hijacked by patriarchal interests, to speak up for those countless other women who did not yet have the courage to represent.
This was not a book that told me anything I didn’t know already, instead confirming the fact that I exist. Which is not meant to be an honourable purpose for a book, literarily speaking, though anyone who’s ever told you this has probably been a man who sees his existence confirmed in his reflection in most everything he ever encounters.
The book’s editors write of their intention to have a copy of One Kind Word in every clinic waiting room across the country, and while this is a very good idea, I’d like to have it gracing coffee tables too. First, because it’s a book of beautiful images, good for flipping through, but also because it places our abortion stories right where they belong—firmly ensconced in the domestic ordinary of our various and remarkable lives.
June 22, 2014
I make a point of reading everything Elizabeth Renzetti writes, her Globe and Mail column one of my Saturday morning go-to’s. So I was always going to read Based On a True Story, her first novel, which Renzetti describes as “an alcohol-soaked comedy of failure and revenge”. I was thinking Kate Christensen’s In the Drink, Lucky Jim, and “Absolutely Fabulous meets The Devil Wears Prada,“as its back cover tells us, a blazing pink cover with lips, a lurid green type. The green is referential, the same lurid green as the book in the book, a book also called Based on a True Story, which is a surprise bestselling memoir was washed-up soap star and notorious drunk, Augusta Price. I was thinking also that Renzetti’s novel would be a send-up of tabloid culture and the current state of journalism (especially post phone-hacking scandal) in the style of Annalena McAfee’s 2011 novel The Spoiler, which had a similar set-up, but Renzetti has her tabloid journalist (young Frances in her cardigan) sacked not far into the story (which I suppose is a reflection on the current state of journalism in itself), so the narrative turned into something different. Something more like another novel about a woman called Augusta, Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, mainly in that there are many many madcap shenanigans.
After far too many silly novels trying oh so hard to be smart, it was really refreshing to discover a smart novel that wasn’t afraid or ashamed to be silly.
The writing is as sharp and skilful as you would expect if you’d ever read a Renzetti column, with snappy dialogue and perfect cultural references. Augusta Pierce is a fantastic character, and another notable literary bolter, her complete lack of maternal instinct and similar lack of compunction for such a lack refreshing to encounter. Her self-destructive tendencies too—such a smooth slide down the spiral. And she’s got charisma, which explains her hangers-on—old friend and saviour Alma Partridge, one-time paramour Kenneth Deller (who now makes his living as “Mr. Romance,” host of a radio call-in show for the lovelorn) and pines for her across the world, and Frances the sacked journalist who agrees to ghost-write Augusta’s next book, but not before accompanying her on a journey to California to stop Kenneth Deller from writing his tell-all book first.
Augusta goes to great lengths to assert that her own book is just a version of the truth, the version she chose to share, though the excerpts from it that we’re privy to attest to its being a compelling read all the same, or perhaps because of this. (You really can’t always say this about excerpts from fictional books either. I will admit to skipping all the italicized parts of Possession.) And Augusta herself, with her sordid history, her mountains of baggage and disappointments, comes to be such a multi-dimensional character that it’s too bad that she’s given such a two-dimensional world to live in, that the narrative Renzetti constructs is less plot than scaffold. Material this good seems deserving of more.
Still, Based on a Truth Story is a worthy novel based on its insights, if not its plotting. Renzetti resists cliche in more than a few places, but in particular with her conclusion and its dose of sober realism (or unsober realism, as the case may be). “We have work to do,” says Augusta Pierce in the novel’s final line, and so too does Renzetti, and I hope she’s prepared to get hard at it one of these days, because her second book is going to be wonderful.
June 18, 2014
Nine years ago today, I got married, and about ten years ago, when this date was selected, what first occurred to me was, “How cool! Paul McCartney’s birthday.” Because to me, June 18th has always been Paul McCartney’s birthday first, at least since I was a Beatles-obsessed 13 year old and organized a Paul McCartney Birthday Bash in my dorm room during our Grade 8 year-end trip to Ottawa. (It was not a wild bash. I recall jumping on a bed, and turning the volume all the way up on my Sony Sports Walkman so we could listen to The Beatles’ 1967-70 through the headphones.)
As I did to a lot of things, I came to The Beatles late, about 20-some years late. Being a Beatles-obsessed 13 year-old in 1992 was a curious thing. It involved feeling inordinate, impossible pain at John Lennon’s murder; trying to be a vegetarian because of Linda; scouring the TV guide every week in order to schedule tapings of Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live or showings of John Lennon Imagine on Much Music. I even kept a scrapbook, comprising clippings of Paul McCartney’s son’s surfing mishap, various Beatles’ legal troubles, and a cut-out of the “Be My Yoko Ono” lyrics from my Barenaked Ladies’ “Gordon” cassette tape liner notes. I made Beatles posters in my Grade 8 art class–they weren’t very good. I bought Beatles’ biographies written by Geoffrey Giuliano and Hunter Davies. I built a Beatles shrine in my Design and Technology class, specially designed to store my cassette tapes and biographies. I was forbidden to talk about them at the dinner table. I listened to their music over and over (and learned to play their songs on the guitar). I remember listening to Hey Jude for the first time when I was about 11 years old, sitting in my backyard with a red battery-powered cassette player, and it was as though I’d discovered for the meaning of life. The meaning of my life. For a few years, it really was.
So I was eager to read Beth Kaplan’s memoir, All My Loving: Coming of Age With Paul McCartney in Paris. Kaplan was fortunate enough to fall in love with the Beatles at just the right time, on the cusp of her own adolescence and the Beatles’ fame. The memoir is based on her own diaries, scrapbooks and short stories (in which she fantasized about being Paul McCartney’s wife and/or [gasp!] his lover). In a fun and breezy fashion, she puts her reader in the mindset of a 13 year old girl who is as confused by the world as she is by her terrifying range of emotions, and who is also in thrall with The Beatles. Like many of her peers, her identity as a “Beatlemaniac” was one of her first acts of self-definition, a small rebellion against her conservative parents. Though they’re not so conservative–the book begins with young Beth ecstatic at the news that her parents are attending a Ban the Bomb demonstration, and therefore she is free to turn the radio dial and hear “She Loves You” for the very first time, and I love the way she describes her visceral reaction to the music, the way she’s transformed by it and so is the world around her.
Kaplan outlines a complicated relationship with her parents, even more complicated than the average teenage love/hate, and while she alludes to her own parents’ experience (her father experiencing anti-semitism as a professor at Dalhousie University; or the time her mother reported of The Feminine Mystique, “I took one look at Betty Friedan and put the book down”) and she is indeed chronicling a cultural phenomenon, there is a lot in the book that is particular also. But the particularity is not always explained, instead the reader receiving the unfiltered thoughts of a solipsistic teen girl and all the contradictions that entails. (One of the many times I laughed out loud was when her list of “hates” included The Dave Clark Five and “intolerance.”) This approach makes sense in the grand scheme of the project, but it also leaves the reader with a lot of questions.
But then, the Beatles are the focus, as they were for 13 year old Beth, her parents’ own dramas firmly in the background. Or perhaps the Beatles were her escape? And Paul McCartney in particular, her chosen Beatle, the proxy by which she explores notions of love and lust and sex and longing. During the time she recounts in the memoir, she moves with her family to Paris for her father’s sabbatical year, and the Beatles are a consolation of her loneliness during this time, and also a bridge between her and her French classmates.
I was especially amused by her friend in France who had learned to speak English through Beatles lyrics, and so only spoke as such, expressing her gratitude with, “Thank you girl” and other such phrases. And it made me think about how those of us who learned about life through the Beatles are similarly equipped, not so literally, but still, to us, the world is all Strawberry Fields, A Day in the Life, Help and Penny Lane, etc. I knew these songs before I knew the world, is what I mean, and in a way, these songs are still my foundation, fundamental to my vocabulary. (Longing for love meant longing for someone to get high when they see me go by. My oh my). It is probable that Beatles songs have affected the shape of my brain.
I went to see Paul McCartney at Exhibition Stadium on June 6 1992 on his Live in the New World Tour. It still stands out as one of the most extraordinary days of my life, and I will never forget the excitement, but also the sadness at my realization that I was just one tiny person is a sea of people that night, that he couldn’t see me at all. That indeed, he’d been the subject of “All My Loving” (for I too was a Paul girl, even though he was not far away from being 64 at the time) but to him, I didn’t even exist. That all my loving was only a drop in the ocean… and it was heartbreaking. Such is the pain of being a 13 year old girl.
And even though she did it at the right time, a few decades before me, Beth Kaplan’s memoir brought the whole thing back. The roller coaster ride, the battles, and the unbelievable excitement of being on the edge of something huge–such confidence too that in just another year or two, surely we’re going to have the whole world figured out.