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April 28, 2016

The Name Therapist, by Duana Taha

the-name-therapistOften the most remarkable story about names is the fact that sometimes there isn’t a story at all. For example: I somehow managed to be named after two Irish counties entirely by accident. “What where your parents thinking?” people have asked me, imagining me as the offspring of two Munster enthusiasts, but I don’t think they were thinking of much beyond euphony. Although my maternal grandmother had a difference of opinion about that, and suggested “Lea” as a middle name to soften the sound, which was how I came to be called Kerry Lea by everybody on my mother’s side of the family. But I think my father’s family found the double names a bit pretentious (and really, their tendency was to truncate single names to a syllable, so that’s not shocking), so they called me Kerry, and in my mind it was a bit like having two selves, Kerry and Kerry Lea being people entire distinct from each other. (Further: carrying around an extra name is very cumbersome, and I ditched the “Lea” altogether at the beginning of grade one at a very singular moment in which my teacher asked me what I wished to be called, and I proclaimed myself a Kerry and so have been ever since.)

So what I mean about names, and what Duana Taha means too in her wonderful new book, The Name Therapist, is that even the names without a story turn out to be stories, and for some of us, those stories are inherently interesting. Name nerds, she calls us. In high school, I owned an A-Z of baby names, just because it made for good reading. I used to collect weird and wonderful names I encountered in books—Beezie from A Swiftly Tilting Planet and Zeeney from Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret were two very bizarre ones I fancied once (and while I didn’t end up naming anybody Zeeney, I named my firstborn after another character in the same book). More often than I ever wrote actual stories as a child, I invented fictional class lists, the names telling me everything about the plots inherent, multiple Melissas, and everything. I made up families too, ones with kids a bit older than me, sisters called Robin, Tracey and Karen—don’t you know exactly who these people are? There was a time in which I wanted to a name my child Ariadne, and about a decade ago, my husband and I had a fictional daughter called Sadie Rose who was very well behaved, and then when I gave birth to actual children, I called them Harriet Joy and Iris Malala, who were not named accidentally at all.

And so for me, reading The Name Therapist was a bit like going to church. Over the years, Duana Taha has established some serious name cred through her column on the blog Lainey Gossip, writing about names, helping expectant parents sort through Ellas and Bellas, and marvelling at phenomena like Jayden, Cayden and Brayden. She continues to explore these ideas in her book, as well as sharing her own experiences growing up with an unusual name, and how her Irish and Egyptian parents’ experiences with their names informed the selection of her name. (Her mother, Mary Veronica, who was only ever, inexplicably, called Maureen.)

The book is a delicious mix of memoir and social science, even better reading than the Baby Name A-Z (which was very good, actually, because it was from there that I first discovered that Zoe meant life, and that Elaine was a variant of Helen). Taha writes about naming trends, sibling matches, “Utah names,” Starbucks names, same-sex couples with the same name, and just what it feels like to be a Jennifer. Taha’s thesis is that a difficult name builds great character, and that learning to be a Myfanwy will make Myfanwy an awesome girl. She’s got a thing against Gords, but don’t take it personally if you are one. She delves into stripper names, African-American names, and why the Baby Name A-Z’s are so ridiculously Anglo-centric. Names and class. Also, what it felt like to be the parent of a child called Atticus during the summer of 2015.

Name therapy is not an exact science, and Taha’s thesis (name as character builder) was disproved more than once throughout her research, but I think that this was never meant to be a controlled experiment. Instead, it’s a book that will be delighted in by most people who’ve ever thought hard about how they were named and why, and what it means to name somebody else. It’s rich with stories, connections, and fascinations. And that I couldn’t write about it without sharing name stories of my own proves Taha’s overarching premise: that names are something it’s hard to shut up about.

April 20, 2016

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, by Cordelia Strube

on-the-shores-of-darkness-there-is-lightEver since 1964, writers whose protagonists are eleven-year-old girls called Harriet have been taking a serious chance on things. How can one actually pull that off that kind of literary homage? But Cordelia Strube, whose many books include the 2010 Giller-nominated novel Lemon (which was one of my favourite books that year) has absolutely pulled it off. Her Harriet, in On the Shores of Darkness There is Light, is a many-splendored, singular creation, and the novel goes and goes and never falters.

Harriet lives in an apartment building called the Shangrila, once a luxury high-rise but now a place housing mostly downtrodden seniors and her family since they lost their home in the 2008 economic downturn. Her mother is trying to keep them afloat through under-the-table bookkeeping, with no help from Gennady, her broke criminal lawyer boyfriend in Crocs, or Harriet’s father Trent, avid cyclist who lives with Uma who he met at the farmer’s market and who is currently in the middle of an IVF cycle. And then there is Irwin, Harriet’s five-year-old brother who has hydrocephalous and whose traumatic entrance to the world brought forth the end of Harriet’s parents’ marriage and all semblances of stability in her life. His health remains perilous, with frequent seizures and hospital visits, ever a source of anxiety and preoccupation for their mother, leaving Harriet with a preponderance of freedom that she exploits for her own devices.

Dumpster-diving for materials for her found art projects, charging her elderly neighbours for runs to the convenience store, and hanging out with her teenage neighbour, Darcy, and losing her scattered grandmother at the Scarborough Town Centre, Harriet has her own agenda, which ultimately involves her dream of escaping it all and getting away to a rural retreat far away in Algonquin Park, living alone by a lake and painting much like Tom Thomson did. A playwright, Strube has an ear for dialogue, and the novel is enlivened by conversation by the people all around Harriet, from confused senior citizens to forthright angry teens, and we see all the information contained within these throwaway lines being filtered through Harriet’s precocious but still eleven-year-old brain and how they come to inform her view of the world. The connections she makes between her father’s obsession with cycling and her stepmother’s IVF cycle, for example, or how a diatribe from the malicious Gennady becomes the title of a sculpture she creates called “The Leopard Who Changed Her Spots.” In a subtle fashion, this is very much a novel that is preoccupied with language, by words, and the puzzles of what things really mean.

As in her previous work, Strube is unafraid to portray adults as a ragtag collection of lost souls and idiots. (This is another feature this novel shares with the collected works of Louise Fitzhugh.) That such folks are responsible for the care of vulnerable people is always a terrifying thing for those people to discover, and On the Shores of Darkness… is about that loss of innocence, the realization that none of us are really ever safe, and that our parents are as vulnerable as we are. “I want you to get better, but I don’t want to be blamed,” admits Harriet’s mother at one point regarding her son’s unhappiness, which is indicative of every adult’s failure in this book to take responsibility for his or her own actions, for their own life. “All of this has been very hard on me,” so say the grown-ups in relation to their children’s hardships, over and over again.

At nearly 400 pages, the novel is long, but swiftly paced and never dull. The bleakness of its considerations are broken up with incredible humour, from the cacophony of the voices in its background to the sheer audacity of Harriet herself, her nerve, all the things she is willing to do and say. There is a humour too in the contrast between the child’s point of view and the world around her, and—in the case of Harriet’s friend, Darcy, in particular—the person she is trying to to be. The sheer naïveté of these would-be old souls. Darcy likes to go on about, “that Caitlin whore,” a friend from her old neighbourhood, and we learn about what Caitlin did to her at Guides: “I was a Sprite and she was a Pixie. That ho bag made like all the cool girls were Pixies….Then the skank fucked up my puppetry badge.”

There is a twist two thirds of the way into the novel that is absolutely devastating and potentially crazy-making, but Strube manages to make the final section work with the introduction of a new character, a young girl who underlines the novel’s Fitzhugh ties  by her determination to be a detective, carrying a magnifying glass and clues jotted in a notebook even. And while the novel veers dangerously toward sentimentality as it heads to its conclusion, Strube shows just enough restraint, and manages an impeccable ending, one that brings its pieces together, steady as the beat of a heart.

April 13, 2016

The Road to Atlantis, by Leo Brent Robillard

the-road-to-atlantisLeo Brent Robillard’s novel The Road to Atlantis has been sitting on my shelf for about six months, and while I’ve wanted to read it—it’s a novel about family, and I love that cover—I’ve been terrified to pick it up. Because it’s a novel that begins with the death of a child, and I just don’t want to go there, not even in fiction, and also because a novel about the death of a child is so easy to do badly, all emotional manipulation and cliche. But last week I’d finally steeled myself, and I am so glad I did. The Road to Atlantis works on every level.

Here’s why. The tragedy occurs in the first chapter, and we know it’s coming. Anne and David are at the seashore with their two children on a summer vacation, and while the plot is taking the reader toward the inevitable moment (because the back of the novel has told us as much) the narrative itself is concerned with all the details and frictions of ordinary life, which is to say that there aren’t any ominous clouds, or if they are, we only notice them in retrospect. And when it finally happens—their daughter disappears while swimming, and the entire beach goes on alert as they search for her, because perhaps she’d only wandered off —David thinks, “So this is how my life was meant to be…This is what tragedy feels like.” But we don’t hang there for long inside that moment. Within a paragraph (“This is it, he thought.”) this chapter is over.

We’re given a blank page for the purpose of recovering our senses (for certainly, the end of the first chapter hit me like a gut-punch) and when the second chapter begins, we find the family a year ahead in time, their lives seemingly resumed, the rest of the world no longer so conscious of the tragedy that had befallen the Henry family. Which makes it almost easier to carry on the charade that life goes on, these characters still stunned, numb and vacant as it does. And it’s here where the novel launches, taking us through the next two decades of their lives, the moments where Anne and David hang together and where they fall apart, each of them navigating grief in their own way. And it is in their own way, ways that are so connected to the people they were before their daughter died (the people we met in the first chapter) that these trajectories seem inevitable. “This was how my life was meant to be.” This entire novel is about that resignation.

Which sounds depressing, but there’s too much substance to be simply that. At one point in the novel, David takes his high school history students on a field trip to the Diefenbunker near Ottawa, a Cold War era bunker deep under ground, and while the narrative too plumbs similar depths, it’s not the plunge itself that matters but the scenery down there. We see David and Anne trying to carry on with ordinary family life, performing their respective jobs well and less well, parenting their son as he grows older, confronting their own family histories, and yes, all the while their daughter is present, memories of her stirred continually. They’re pursuing their own passions and fascinations, some of them inexplicable. Turns out “This was how my life was meant to be,” is not as straightforward as one might assume, because while the tragedy of a child dying touches everything, there comes a point at which it no longer defines it.

I loved this book, it’s depiction of real people who are so thoroughly tied to the world, although there are certainly moments at which they might not want to be. The Road to Atlantis is an engrossing read, the reader swept along by its pace, and as amazed at what time can do as its characters are.

April 6, 2016

Escape Plans, by Teri Vlassopoulos

escape-plansBack in November, I went to the launch for Teri Vlassopoulos’s novel, Escape Plans and bought the book with great anticipation, but then I got pneumonia not long after and the book got lost inside a month of illness, a month during which Escape Plans received a short review in The Globe and Mail, which is always a good thing. So I should have known then that when I finally picked up on the book on Friday that I was in for something excellent, a weekend of really wonderful reading. I finished the book on Sunday night in the bathtub, which was kind of fitting in a small-scale way. And I enjoyed it so completely.

We learn in the prologue that one of our three narrators, Niko, drowned in the Aegean Sea, this information disclosed by his daughter Zoe who is recalling how she learned of her father’s death, returning home from swim practice, the smell of chlorine, her wet bathing suit in a heap on the floor. And then the novel proper begins, Niko’s first sentence, “I’ve always been good at leaving,” and telling the story about how he left his family in Toronto and returned to his native Greece to work for an ailing shipping company that had once belonged to his uncle and grandparents. Zoe’s storyline begins years after the prologue, as she moves to Montreal for university and embarks on her first real love affair. And finally, we meet Zoe’s mother Anna, Niko’s wife, who is travelling to Paris with her partner, this storyline contemporaneous with Zoe’s, and Anna is unsure about the terms of her relationship, the future, and also worried about her daughter back home.

It’s a fascinating structure, in particular that one of the narrators is (seemingly) a dead man, these passages narrated by a ghost. Vlassopoulos does a wonderful job creating suspense as his story progresses, and we want to find out what happens to him, and it seems impossible that he could actually die, so alive are his words on the page. Just as effective are the ways that Vlassopoulos have the members of this broken family, disparate figures, each of them, curiously echoing one another, and connected in ways that only the reader is privy to. The inspiration for this structure is the mythological Graeae, three sisters who shared a single eye (which in this case is the novel’s first-person narrative, a single I). The Graeae enter into the story via poetry written by Niko’s mother, who also wrote about a historical figure who shares a name with a turtle belonging to Niko’s next-door neighbours in Athens….by which I mean that this is a novel loaded with freight (also fitting). There’s nothing incidental, even if Zoe’s haphazard road trip to New York City and then Niagara Falls kind of seems that way, even in her own mind. And each character is laden with their own history—Zoe with the tragedy of her father’s death, Niko’s legacy from his literary parents, and Anna’s own childhood growing up with her geologist father in Northern Ontario. Vlassopoulos’s characters are (sometimes unknowingly) such products of the people they’ve come from, and the places they’ve been, and she shows how experience and inheritance comes with its own DNA, and so much of it is inescapable. (There is also a Bonnie and Clyde reference near the end that’s exquisite, that their doomed outcome was never the point.)

While there’s nothing showy about Escape Plans, and getting used to the structure takes a few chapters, eventually the deftness of the novel’s construction becomes overwhelming, and I finished the book asking myself, “How did she do that?” It’s the kind of book that I want to return to again, to discover connections (odds and omens) that I wasn’t savvy enough to pick up on the first time.

March 28, 2016

Ice Diaries, by Jean McNeil

ice-diariesTo me a paradox is a comforting thing, with its suggestion of the unknowability of universe and therefore possibilities well beyond our narrow expectations of experience, ideas surpassing our rigid understanding of black and white, hot and cold, fire and ice. To me it’s comforting too that a single thing can be two things at once, that all the easy answers are the wrong ones, because any of us who bother to think already know that this is the case. And if you’re the kind of person who also has these proclivities, than you too will probably be fascinated to spend a while lost inside Ice Diaries, the Antarctic memoir by the Governor General’s Award-nominated author Jean McNeil.

It’s a memoir freely acknowledged by its author to be a creation, about a continent without terra firma, a huge expanse of space in which there is nowhere to go, where everything is white but so much of the year is darkness. The Antarctic is a place where few people ever go, but those who do are compelled to return. A place of toughness and fragility. Inhabited by scientists, except that McNeil is a writer send along on their expedition. A Canadian, who has lived in Britain for more than twenty years. In this 400+ page book, the paradoxes abound.

For me this was a slow read, structured similarly to McNeil’s journey to the Antarctic by sea, an experience she says she was grateful for, because the Antarctic is not to be simply arrived at, but instead acclimatized to, otherwise the effect is much too jarring. We also find ourselves in the opening chapter in the Falkland Islands, a stepping-off point to the Antarctic, and this is two years after her Antarctic journey. Because while it’s the fashion to begin a story in the beginning, most of us don’t realize we’re there until the middle—time is not so tidy. Which is also the reason that a narrative strand of Ice Diaries is concerned with McNeil’s violent childhood in the Maritimes, as well as a summer during her teen years during which women were being stalked and murdered in her small town and McNeil met her father for the first time, experiences that become conflated. And while these passages seem a bit extraneous to the Antarctic chapters, it is interesting to consider the ways in which they’re linked. And so too how McNeil’s early life may contribute to the claustrophobia and dread she feels at the end of her Arctic sojourn when the sun begins to disappear and McNeil fears she may never get away from there.

McNeil is a tremendous writer who brings the Antarctic landscape to life (! another paradox for a place with so little life) with the deftness of her prose, and her memoir is rich with fascinating details—such as that one must remember to apply sunscreen under one’s chin as the reflection of sun off the snow can cause third degree burns. This journey through the topography of the continent at the bottom of the world is one through the topography of her consciousness, and both emerge from the story known and still unknown at once.

March 20, 2016

Becoming Lin, by Tricia Dower

becoming-linAlthough coming-of-age books tend to feature adolescent protagonists, Tricia Dower’s novel Becoming Lin not only demonstrates that such “becomings” can occur elsewhere (and even more than once) in a lifetime, but also represents an arrival for the author herself. For this book, Dower’s third—after the acclaimed 2008 story collection Silent Girl, which put feminist spins on Shakespearean narratives; and the 2012 novel Stony River with its sinfully delicious Peyton Place bent—is absolutely her finest yet. Becoming Lin is the kind of book that you’re sorry when it’s finished, bereft to leave behind a world that has held you so fast.

It’s a novel about the 1960s, about idealism and reality, about the narrow confines of a wife’s identity and that of a mother. Familiar themes, all of these if you’ve read books like Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellers or watched Mad Men, but themes made fresh with the nuances of the novel’s point of view, the carefulness with which these ideas are examined. In Becoming Lin, the prose is mostly inconspicuous, but what grips the reader is the evolution of Lin’s consciousness, and the complexity that arises from the absence of polarities—unusual for a history of a decade so constructed of extremes.

Linda Wise is sheltered, overprotected by her parents in their sleepy New Jersey town, particularly since her sexual assault years before (which occurred in the novel, Stony River). At the age of 23, she sees an opportunity for herself when she meets the charismatic Ron Brunson, a guest pastor at her family’s church one summer. Ron preaches social justice, and shares stories of his experiences on Freedom Rides, for which he spent time in jail. Ron’s values seem to accord with Linda’s own, but with the addition of the possibility of actual action, something she’s found hard-to-come-by in her hometown, studying at a women’s college toward a social work qualification. The two end up sitting side-by-side at a church dinner, and Dower marvellously constructs the dialogue that brings them even closer. Ron mentions to their table that his chances of getting a church of his own are lessened without a wife, who’s expected to take on (unpaid) roles in the congregation—among them counsellor or administrator-typist. Someone mentions he should put a wife-wanted ad in the newspaper, and Linda’s not quite listening to this.

“I type. I can do the bulletins,” she volunteers, with characteristic bad timing, in essence responding to the want-ad, and while the moment is awkward, Ron Brunson is game.

After a whirlwind courtship, they are married, and Linda (who is happy to have her new husband truncate her name to the more sophisticated-sounding “Lin”) follows Ron to his congregation far across the country to rural Minnesota, where she soon finds herself playing the careful and conservative role of the minister’s wife—not quite what she’d signed up for. Typing bulletins is not even the half of it. Most troublingly though is her husband’s reticence to voice his opposition to the Vietnam War, a point of view that could put his job at risk. And here is where a lesser novel would have irrevocably split the couple, wife going off to radical pursuits and leaving her dull husband behind, but instead Dower has Lin give Ron the courage to realize that opposing the war is his duty as a minister and as a Christian. Theirs is a true partnership, however much a complicated one.

And it is complicated, this we know from the outset, as chapters for the first half of Becoming Lin alternate between two timelines, one of the newlyweds negotiating their new life together, and the other of Lin half a decade later, now a mother to a young son with whom she is moving to the nearby city of Hopkins to begin a new life for herself. A temporary experiment, this is meant to be, though the reader is not made privy to the details at the outset—we know that she and Ron are still married, it’s his name on her apartment lease, that he takes for granted she’ll return home to a year from then. And the story here is familiar to me as well, because I grew up watching Three’s Company and One Day at the Time on television—sitcom scenes of single moms and apartment complex social dynamics. Though the problems Lin is grappling with here—and so too are the other single mom friends she encounters—are not so easily resolved in neat half hour episodes. It’s a brave new world of women’s lib, access to abortion, and career gals, though the notions of justice that have followed Lin throughout her life continue—she’s working for a company in which promotion is not accessible to women employees; her friends contend with deadbeat dads who don’t support their families, she gets groped on busses and feels somewhat unsafe just walking around in her own life.

In the intervening years, Lin and Ron had been wrapped up in the anti-war movement, stirring up resistance from their neighbours and gaining the unfortunate attention of the FBI. Her faith in God and religion has wavered, her husband’s remaining steadfast, and this has become a great divide between them. Their year apart then is an attempt to bridge that space, Ron wishing her to take the freedom and responsibility she longs for, and again, it’s a strength of the novel that he remains (for the most part) a sympathetic character, their connection a true one, albeit one with weak spots and failings. And that the religious character (he’s such a square, man!) does not become the bad guy, that he too is on the side of social justice, but his position is complicated too, just like life is.

In essence, Lin has two becomings in this story, and it’s important to note that one is not necessarily the undoing of the other. That progress is a process, and so is it for feminism, coming in waves as it does, some change rolling back on other kinds, and there is contradiction and disagreement, which might look like disarray from a distance, but it’s a becoming, indeed.

March 17, 2016

Barbados Book Report

IMG_20160301_145915I promise that I am nearly finished writing blog posts about Barbados, but I haven’t talked about the books yet. We brought so many books to Barbados, twelve or so, books for me and books for Stuart, and it made our suitcase quite heavy and wondered if it was really wise to travel with more books than sunscreen, but my intuition than it was indeed turned out to be correct. Because there was so much time to read, and even enough time that there was enough time to read…and also do other things besides reading. (I am also not sorry that we brought twelve physical books with us, a few of them hardcovers, because on the journey home I found a forgotten Kindle in the pocket of the seat in front of me, belonging to someone called Pat who’d lost more than 100 books all that once. If I’d forgotten a book in an airplane [which, by the way, would never ever ever happen] I’d still have eleven more available for my reading pleasure. There is nothing I’d rather carry more than books. And I would rather carry books than nothing any time.)

IMG_20160227_114010My first book was Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels series. As I’ve said, it’s a series I’m not mad for, but am intrigued by, and I’ve enjoyed each subsequent book more than the previous (which makes sense—I’m perpetually bored by stories of childhood and adolescence). And this was the one I’ve been most looking forward to, for the characters are mothers now and Lena is a writer, and these storylines compel me. And they did. I read most of this on the 5 hour flight, dipping in and out of Carolyn Smart’s collection of Bonnie and Clyde poems, Careen, for diversion. I enjoyed it so much, and was most struck by the tension between the two friends when Lena becomes pregnant and is determined to do pregnancy and motherhood properly, to prove her friend’s struggles with it had been personal failings rather than circumstance. And there are even a few days where it seems possible, until the whole thing goes to pieces, and she loses herself as so many women do (not knowing too that all this is such a temporary situation—she imagines motherhood as a fixed state). This was the first Ferrante books I seemingly devoured in that way one is meant to. I really really liked it.

IMG_20160228_134156Next up was My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout, which Ann Patchett and others had proclaimed as Strout’s best book yet. I’d come belatedly to Olive Kitteridge, but really liked it, and had been looking forward to this one, but it kind of disappointed me. I mean not entirely, because it was interesting and also short, a consideration which meant my investment was not overwhelming. But this was also problematic because I bought the book in hardback, paid $30+ for it and felt I’d paid a lot of money for something slight and unfinished. Which was inherent to the project, I supposed, but I was never able to quite figure out how, or what the point was, or why this wasn’t a novel proper. Though it being short, I think I will go back and explore it again, see what I missed. It did actually seem an uncanny read after reading Ferrante, echoes of one with the other. The very premise of Lucy Barton reminded me of the part in The Story of a New Name in which Lena’s mother comes to Pisa to care for her when she is ill, an anomaly in the story of their relationship, as it was for Lucy and her mother, and so too the circumstance of each woman’s positioning against her past and her family, and the insurmountable nature of class.

IMG_20160229_105956After that, I read The Sunken Cathedral, by Kate Walbert, whose A Short History of Women I’d enjoyed so much a few years ago, and it came recommended by Nancy Jo at Book City. It also seemed like a strange choice following My Name is Lucy Barton, also set in New York City, delving into ideas of motherhood, art, and friendship. Although I felt I wasn’t quite in the right mindset for it. It’s even more fragmented than Lucy Barton but less annoying so—the pieces are so disparate that it makes the project seem like more instead of less. All the same though, I couldn’t make the pieces (each of them compelling in their own rights) fit together to mean something greater than the parts. Was I reading it wrong, I wondered? Why couldn’t I focus enough to have the whole thing make sense? And then I found this New York Times book review that kind of confirmed by feelings and suggesting the problem wasn’t entirely me, and I liked the book better after that, accepting it on its own terms.

IMG_20160301_103825And then I read Diary of a Mad Housewife, which I was absolutely mad for. I’d ordered it after reading Laura Miller’s article on the resurgence of the housewife novel, which interested me because I think Mitzi Bytes fits into the genre. And it was fantastic. How can this book be out of print? It’s funny, sharp, and a marvellous exercise in narrative voice. I’ve never seen the award-winning film, but now I’d like to. As the introduction indicated in my edition, this 1967 anticipated books like Bridget Jones Diary and Candice Bushnall’s Sex and the City columns, and fits well into the genre of Betty Draper books I kind of love, which includes Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellers, The Torontonians by Phyllis Brett Young, and the obligatory Betty Friedan. I appreciate that it’s a book about marriage and motherhood that does necessarily think marriage or motherhood is the singular problem, but that the problems go deeper than that. Also seemed an extension of The Sunken Cathedral in its considerations of New York and motherhood. These novels were continuing to speak to one another.

IMG_20160302_110316Following that, I read The Hundred Year House, by Rebecca Mekkai, which is our book club selection for this month and as I’d read online that it was a bit of a beach read, it seemed fitting to bring with us. It was a strange book that I didn’t entirely understand until I was further into it, and also not until I’d read about her first novel, The Borrower, which was rich with references to classic children’s books including The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, and the suddenly it all made sense, that this book is similarly a puzzle mystery but for grown-ups. The story moves backwards over the twentieth century to reveal the secrets behind a house, the eccentric family that owned it, and the visitors at an artists’ colony housed there for several decades. On the whole, it was a bit forgettable, but I enjoyed it. Curious echoes between it and Mad Housewife as well—both have characters who are hit in the face by mean men called George.

IMG_20160303_103218I had to take the dust jacket off for the next book, because my friend loaned it to me and then I took it to the beach, which puts books in perilous situations. The book is The Faithful Place, by Tana French, whose books I adore. My third Tana French, and perhaps my favourite. (I am reading them in order; each book is narrated by a minor character from the previous one. And I was so thrilled to discover a new one is forthcoming in August!) I don’t recall connections between this one and others I was reading, but I was so entirely absorbed in the novel that I wasn’t thinking about anything else. It’s about a Dublin detective, Frank Mackey, who returns to his estranged family when a suitcase is discovered in an abandoned house on their street. The suitcase belongs to his first love, a girl who jilted him on the night they were meant to run away together. And now maybe it turns out that he wasn’t jilted, and that someone close to both of them actually killed her.

IMG_20160304_103834The Pumpkin Eater, by Penelope Mortimer, was after that, the fourth book I’ve read by Mortimer, although it reminded me much more of Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns, in being a rather devastated telling of the realities behind fancy bohemian lives. These poor women. (Both novels are autobiographical as well.) It’s about a wife who has been as partial to philandering as she is to bearing children, but when her umpteenth husband starts cheating on her, it’s all quite different. It’s a spare novel, much of it dialogue and we don’t even know the main character’s name. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed later novels by Mortimer—I liked My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof and Home, novels written after this one and Daddy’s Gone a Hunting. But I also think it’s far from a beach read and one perhaps not best appreciated under the influence of a daiquiri. And so I’m going to be reading it again.

IMG_20160305_100107And finally, my bonus book (for it was from Stuart’s stack). The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith i.e. J.K. Rowling, her foray into detective fiction, the first in a trilogy. And I loved it. For me, I’ve always connected J.K. Rowling (whose work I’ve not read before, apart from a read aloud of the first Harry Potter a couple of years ago) with Kate Atkinson, both of their career successes undertaking similar trajectories, and so it seemed fitting that this book reminded me so much of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels (although Galbraith’s is much lighter in tone, less brutal and violent). Anyway, The Cuckoo’s Calling was great, and I look forward to following its characters through the other books in the series.

Since returning, I’ve been immersed in great Spring 2016 books, and I have a few really good ones I look forward to telling you about.

March 8, 2016

In Time of Need, by Shakirah Bourne

(IMG_20160305_154417Or, the alternate blog post title: “Barbados in Words Part I” )

In the future whenever I think about the challenges of fostering a thriving literary culture in a country like Canada (pop. 35 million—as opposed to the US’s 318 million) I’m going to think about the population of Barbados, which is 285,000. Literacy rates are sky-high in Barbados, but there aren’t many bookshops outside the capital city of Bridgetown, which made our vacation last week particularly unique in our experience—this trip was just five minutes away from being the only one we’ve ever taken that did not involve bookshop pilgrimages, and from which we’d come home with fewer books than we’d left with.

Except…that after finally making our way through airport security, five minutes past when our boarding time had started, a bookshop appeared before us at the Grantley Adams International Airport, like a vision. A terrible husband would have suggested that instead we get on the plane, but my husband knew better, and so into the shop we went, me in pursuit of a single thing: a literary book by a Barbadian writer who was a woman. And there is was, In Time of Need, by Shakirah Bourne, a self-published title I knew nothing about, and after all, time was a-wasting, so bought it and rushed for the plane. And I happily read In Time of Need all the way home.

It’s a collection of stories, many of which have already appeared in Caribbean literary journals (including Arts Etc Barbados, which is edited by Bajan-Canadian Robert Edison Sandiford), and which was awarded the Barbados Governor General’s Award for Literary Excellence last year. The opening story, “Getting Marry,” is from the perspective of a young boy confused by his parents’ decision to become married (“because I could have swear that them was married every since”) who decides that getting married is all about kissing and cake, and decides to get in on the action himself  with a young friend, only to witness a very adult moment from his hiding spot under the cake-lady’s table. The story is fixed in the boy’s point of view and  rich with the slang and colloquialism of his language, but then the voice we encounter in the next story is entirely different (from the pov of a young woman who’s just been sold into sex trade, though she doesn’t realize it), and still the next, “The Last Crustacean,” which is narrated by a crab—all of which is to say that this is a fast-paced eclectic collection, a veritable grab-bag of good stories.

I loved “Sheep Don’t Stand Still,” with its fabulous twist, about a woman who thought she was living How Stella Got Her Groove Back with a Bajan lover she’d met on the beach, but who finds out more than she bargained for when he dies suddenly and she goes back to Barbados for the funeral. “If Dogs Could Talk” is a terrific story, one-sided dialogue by a woman being interrogated by police after her cousin is accused of murder. “Four Angry Men” is about politics and takes place over an afternoon at a rum shop. These are stories about domestic violence, child abuse, and family ties. “I Didn’t Know” has the most wonderful opening paragraph: “I first met Betty when her son stole my car. As I watched her punch him in the face and force my car keys from his pocket, all the while begging God for forgiveness, I decided we should be friends.” Another stellar selection was “The Five Day Death of Mr. Mayers,” a story of happenstance and misunderstanding, one thing leading to another with hilarious results. And I loved “A Tear for Miss Cinty,” about a young girl who doesn’t appreciate her mother’s devotion to an elderly neighbour until her own mother is old herself, and left so much alone.

This was all certainly a side of Barbados I was not privy to from the vantage point of my all-inclusive deck chair, but the colours, the sun, the flowers, the food, the slang and rhythms had become familiar to me and immersion in Bourne’s literary worlds was the perfect way to make my vacation last a little bit longer. So nice to bring a little piece of that place home.

February 26, 2016

We Oughta Know, by Andrea Warner


The very first real concert I went to (i.e. not with my dad) was to see Sarah McLachlan on tour for Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, a CD I’d recently purchased from Columbia House for a penny. This was in grade nine, I think, 1993 or 1994, with my best friends Britt and Jennie. Britt’s dad drove us there, to the theatre in Lindsay, ON, where we were part of the amazing, intimate performance, and I saw a girl with dreadlocks who kind of looked like a boy, which left me flummoxed. There is a connection, I think, between having seen Sarah McLachlan, powerful and awesome at her piano, on the guitar, and that Britt and I would spend all of high school performing at talent shows and low-rent concerts playing pop covers on our acoustic guitars, singing in harmony. We really took it for granted, all those amazing women who articulated our feelings so well, whose lyrics we scrawled in our scrapbooks. It was the times we were living in. It seemed inevitable that we’d see Sarah McLachlan against six years later at a much larger venue, us sitting high up and far away on the grass, watching her perform with Sheryl Crow, Deborah Cox. I think the Dixie Chicks were there. Biff Naked on a side stage. Women in songs were in the ascendence. “Women in Songs” was the name of a popular CD series here in Canada in the last few years of the decade, and that the collections were feminist or even that these were women at all seemed to use kind of incidental as we drove down the main street in our town singing along with Natalie Imbruglia as she bared her heart with “Torn.”

We-Oughta-Know-Cover-300-AdjustedIn her book, We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music, Andrea Warner articulates that whole scene, and the remarkable fact that four Canadian women were leading the charge of women in song: Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan, Shania Twain, and Alanis Morissette. These four women too are (along with Diana Krall) are the only Canadians on Canada’s best-selling artists lists, coming in above the Beatles. And even more remarkably, they all made their mark during a five year period in the mid-1990s. What was going on exactly, Warner wonders? How did they do it?

Dion, McLachlan, Twain and Morrisette are not musicians usually linked together, more often viewed in terms of their differences—the good girls and the bad ones, the authentic musicians versus the manufactured ones. Warner makes the interesting point that as a teenager, she regarded these women as she regarded the members of The Babysitters Club, definitive types, not allowing for complexity of character. Making assumptions: how could Dion with her entrepreneurial skills be a Feminist with all her love schlock, and the same with Twain and her bared midriffs? Exhibiting the same narrow-mindedness that led critics to be baffled by Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” (which, incidentally, was the only album my husband and I ended up with two copies of when our CD collections merged):

‘The sweetness of “Head Over Feet,” the sensitive sprawl of “Mary Jane,” and the quirky landscape of “Ironic” were baffling to the easily confused, particularly to those who were committed to painting Morissette as a screaming, seething ball of rage. How can she be angry but so gentle here? Well, how can you have both a right hand and a left hand? It’s simple, provided you’re not someone who hates women. People contain multitudes and women are people; therefore women contain multitudes.’

In her book, Warner takes us track by track through the albums that rocketed these women to stardom, and also examines her own feelings toward them and how coming to admire Dion and Twain for their talent and hard work is a part of her coming to terms with her own notions of feminism. She also takes inspiration from 90s music heroines and blends the personal in with her cultural analysis, discussing how her parents’ separation and own ideas of love and marriage influenced her perspective on Dion’s music, or how McLachlan’s devastating Rarities, B-Sides and Other Stuff (which I always used to put on when I was at my most angst-full, just to feed the pain) intersects with her grief around her father’s death. She also examines how these four women were regarded by the music industry, by the media, the sexism and stereotypes and the system that is set up so that women are unable to succeed, for example, the rule against playing two songs by women in a row on the radio, which is what galvanized Sarah McLachlan to start The Lilith Fair to show that women aren’t merely to be pitted against each other, but can stand together. Fascinating too to consider the stupid Lilith Fair backlash, that it was reverse sexism. I remember being gibed about “lesbians” by certain morons in my company at the time who knew I was going to the concert, as though most rock festivals are not enormous cockfests (which are distinct from “enormous-cock fests”)  and why don’t we ever talk about that?

Warner is a music critic for CBC Music and Exclaim, and a warm, engaging writer who celebrates the power of girls and women and their voices, and critiques the culture that made all this happen. An appendix in We Oughta Know includes a long list of other Canadian female acts who made their mark throughout the 1990s—Alannah Myles, Amanda Marshall, Jann Arden, and others—making clear that the four women spotlighted in her book are not merely some freak phenomena.

“The ’90s were a remarkable decade for girls like me, and ultimately, the woman we would become. When you come of age in a time when women have voices, take up space, are visible creators and entrepreneurs, it never dawns on you that silence is the rule and these women, your idols, are the exception.”

February 10, 2016

Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, by Kathy Page

frankieMy first proper job after graduating from university was temping as admin staff for a social services agency in the English Midlands, and it was a job that blew my mind in terms of what it taught me about the possibilities of narrative. My job required me type out reams of notes scrawled on yellow notepads and other paper scraps, and render these into a coherent story, and it was fascinating. I worked in Fostering and Adoption and wrote up family trees and histories for families pursuing these avenues, and then moved into Children and Families and supported social workers with overflowing caseloads working to protect vulnerable children and/from their parents (who were often unfathomably idiotic—or fathomably so; indeed, there was an entire basement room with paper files stacked to the ceiling of cases that stretched back generations).

I had this job concurrent to the Victoria Climbié murder inquiry, which delved into the systematic failure to protect a small girl who had been tortured and murdered by her guardians. The details of this failure are shocking, and yet they weren’t altogether: I’d seen how resources were scarce, how social workers were often impossibly tasked, and wondered too how far the social safety net would have to stretch in order to account for every possibility of unthinkable human evil. “The ends and edges of what [people] could have done or could do,” which is a line from Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, by Kathy Page.

Frankie Styne is a new edition of Page’s novel, first published in 1993, and it put me in mind of my favourite Hilary Mantel novels, her first two, Every Day is Mothers Day and Vacant Possession, dark comedies about the dark edges of humanity and their successful attempts to outmaneuver meddling social workers. Page’s social worker is Annie Purvis, who we know first from the point of view of her client, Liz Meredith, who’s just been moved into a terrace house with her baby. Liz has spent her time most recently living on a railcar after becoming estranged from her family, but since her baby’s birth (compounded by the fact that he has developmental abnormalities) she’s become tangled up in “the system”. Although she diverts all attempts to get her installed with a phone (living as she does by her grandmother’s advice to “Always avoid ties that bind”), she could do with a television, but in the meantime, she contents herself by listening to conversations between the troubled couple next door and imagining a different kind of reality existing on a planet far away, that life itself is merely the plot of a cheap pulp novel she’s somehow been stuck in.

A novel kind of like those penned by Frank Styne who lives next door to her, though they’ve barely met, and she’s never heard of his novels. Styne is a recluse, done in by a facial deformity and a lifelong struggle with sexual dysfunction, but now his latest book has been nominated for a major award and he’s going to have the press on his doorstep. Which drives him to become embroiled in a revenge plot of his own, sadistic fantasies that outdo any possibilities that have turned up so far in his books.

What impact do Frank Styne’s horror novels have upon the world? Is the impact more or less than the effect of Annie Purvis’s attempts to care for clients such as Liz Meredith and her son? Does Liz really require Annie Purvis’s meddling? And Page does such a terrific job of creating sympathy for each of her characters that we’re gunning for Liz, that we understand why she doesn’t take her son to a clinic after his foot is injured—because it’s true that they’d only take him away from her. And we know too that “they” is a group of people around a table, Annie Purvis and her associates, and they’re making their own gambles about the ends and edges of narrative possibility. That Annie Purvis has struggles of her own, a husband who resents the demands of her job. That all these people in close proximity affect each other in ways that no one can predict and that could never be plotted on a graph. That, contrary to Mrs. Thatcher’s assertion, there is such a thing as society after all, but what it is isn’t always pretty.

Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is dark and funny, painful and uplifting, marvellously satirical but never cynical, and thoroughly invested with good faith. Kathy Page is a marvel. This is the very best book that I’ve read in ages, and if I read another half as good in the next few months, that will constitute an extraordinary literary year.

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