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June 27, 2017

Boundary, by Andrée A. Michaud

How about a book that checks all the boxes: an award winner (Governor General’s Award for French Fiction, and the Arthur Ellis Award), a gorgeous translation, a narrative with psychological depth, and a gripping thriller of the sort that summer reads are made of? I spent my weekend with Boundary, by Andrée A. Michaud, so perfectly steeped in summer and suspense, and I loved it—and I have been ardently recommending it to everybody for days now.

It’s set in a cottage community in Maine, a land that divides two nations, two languages. It becomes a place of in-between where anything is possible during the summer of 1967, the summer of love, the novel’s soundtrack playing Procol Harum and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. It’s a novel that’s also set on the border between girlhood and womanhood, two girls—Zaza and Sissy—on the cusp of everything. None of which will transpire, as both girls will be found dead that summer, caught by brutal animal traps hearkening back to the legendary woodsman Pete Landry, long ago found hanged his cabin and still said to haunt the woods. Are the girls deaths nothing more than tragic, stupid accidents, or is something (and someone) much more sinister at work?

If it weren’t already taken, Lives of Girls and Women would be an excellent alternative title for Boundary, which in its consideration of girlhood, friendship and violence, reminded me in the best way of Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage. While the novel is told from multiple perspectives, including from that of Detective Stan Michaud, its primary point of view belongs to young Andree Duchamp, who is young enough to escape much notice but also to notice everything—the exotic lives of the teenage girls, and also the experience of the wives and mothers in the community, who are its bedrock, and the ones who are left behind during the week when the husbands return to the city and whose stories are told with remarkable psychological acuity.

June 20, 2017

On the Bearability of Lightness

A couple of weeks ago, after a string of one-after-the-other satisfying spring reads, I couldn’t get into a single book. A problem that stretched out for a week, until I had no choice but to turn to a surefire solution, which was to reread a Laurie Colwin novel followed by one by Barbara Pym. The Laurie Colwin idea occurring to me because I’d created a job for a character in the novel I’m writing that seemed Colwin-esque—she was hired as a researcher at an institute for folklore and fairy tales. Which never happens to anyone in real life, but which is all the more fun to imagine for it. In the Colwin novel I read, Happy All The Time, not a single character is in possession of a real job. The book is about two friends, one whose job is to manage the philanthropic foundation that donates his family’s wealth and the other has a background in urban studies and works for a city-planning think-tank, where he meets his future wife who is a linguist working on a language project. The first character’s wife is just wealthy and doesn’t have to work, and spends her day-to-day life watering spider plants in her apartment, making soup, and rearranging jars of pretty things on her windowsills.

Do I sound critical of these details? I don’t mean to. It’s part of the reason I life Laurie Colwin, the rarefied experiences of a certain class of people but she gets at their ordinariness. It is all very strange, and an aspect of appreciating Colwin, I think, is learning to take that strangeness for granted. Which is not to say her books are frivolous, although they are in a way. But I think maybe the problem is that we have no template except for frivolity to understand a book that possesses a light touch. This is a novel that turns gender norms upside down, Jane Austen with the shoes on other feets. The two men at the book’s centre are yearning and emotionally complicated, besotted with emotionally distant women who don’t seem the appeal of love in all its frippery. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff going on here, although it’s easy to breeze right by it, to let it go down easy. It’s easy to give this kind of literature absolutely no credit at all.

What if instead of axes to the frozen seas within us, books were umbrellas to protect us from the ice pellets overhead? Or a house that we could go inside in order to escape from the weather for a while.

I read Barbara Pym after that, because I love her, but my confession is this: apart from Excellent Women (which is so so excellent, but they all are) I have a hard time remembering what Barbara Pym novel is which and they all run together. Which is why I try to reread at least one annually, and this time it was No Fond Return of Love, which I last read in 2010 (which I know because I then recorded a youtube video about how much I loved it). As with the Colwin, this is a book that skews with conventional narrative and is more subversive than it ever gets credit for. Really, it’s a story about stories, about seeing and watching and it’s an experiment in a novel with a protagonist who is not a protagonist at all. Very little of Dulcie’s story is her own, and she doesn’t even want it to be. She is content in her experience, but it’s other people’s experiences that fascinates her, and we keep waiting for the conventional things to happen, but they don’t. Dulcie is far more interested in other people than she is in herself, and so is the novel, which is pretty unusual. I think I read this one around the same time I saw the Emma Thompson film Stranger Than Fiction and read the Muriel Spark novel The Comforters which is similar, and so the metafictional elements of this Barbara Pym book (and the ways in which Pym represents her work and makes a cameo appearance) are underlined to me. I can’t remember if other Pym books are quite as self-referential as this one, or if No Fond Return of Love is an outlier.

In this novel too, things are arranged in jars on windowsills and we’re told what these things are and how the light things through them, and I think of the materiality of both Colwin and Pym’s work, how the furniture is so important. And is there anything wrong with books that are more concerned with end-tables than axes? What if literature didn’t have to be a weapon?

I read Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk next, which I read first in January, but I wanted to read again before my book club discussed it. A book I was so glad to get a chance to return to because it reads so easily you might almost forget it, or at least imagine there is not so much to remember. This the trouble with lightness, of course, is its deceptiveness. Which is the entire point of Lillian Boxfish, actually, and we had such a fascinating discussion about this book, about style and substance, about the way in which its narrator cultivates her persona and how reliable is she, is she writing us another rhyme? This novel written by a poet is written with such an awareness of language, and sense of play about it, and Lillian Boxfish’s point about her heyday is that there could be an intelligence to lightness then, humour and grace. And it made me think about Colwin and Pym, writers whose lightness might be held against them, as Lillian’s work is against her later in her life, dismissed as silly rhymes. But is there a difference between these silly rhymes and today’s silly rhymes, and has a basic assumption of a reader’s intelligence and vocabulary and capacity for challenge changed in the years since Pym and Colwin were published. Remember too that for many years Pym wasn’t even published, out of print for nearly two decades until her resurrection in 1977—so maybe it’s the same as it ever was?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I’m glad that reading light this last little while has given me so much to think about. Thinking about those pretty things in the their jars on the windowsill and the narrow space between light, light (illumination) and delight, which has no etymological connection, but it probably should.

June 1, 2017

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

Has extreme weather always been a feature of literature? Certainly the flood in The Mill on the Floss wasn’t caused by climate change. But it seems particularly meaningful in a troubling fashion to be encountering so much bad weather in books lately—floods in new books by Carleigh Baker, Margaret Drabble and Leanna Betamasosake Simpson as floods have closed Toronto Island. Yesterday and the day before as the weather moved between sunshine and thunderclaps every ten minutes or so kept calling to mind Barbara Gowdy’s new novel, Little Sister, which I read last week. There is something disconcerting about the unsettled weather I keep finding in books these days, almost more so than the unsettled weather in the actual world. The way it narrows the space between truth and fiction, eerily seeming to make all things possible.

Although there is something disconcerting about the work of Barbara Gowdy in general, Gowdy who is best known for her short story collection which includes a tale of necrophilia. The idea of Barbara Gowdy’s work is more pressing in my mind than the work itself—I read her novel, Fallen Angels, years ago, and then completely forgot about having done so. The book about the elephants, which I never even read. My salient memory of We So Seldom Look on Love is a story about a child who is decapitated while being carried on an adult’s shoulders, a tragic encounter with a ceiling fan—Harriet overheard me explaining this synopsis when she was three, and then became obsessed with it, which lead to this very macabre post about gingerbread men. I wonder if the idea of reading Barbara Gowdy might be bigger than the work itself, possibly because the experience is so visceral.

There was a point in Little Sister where I became incapable of putting the book down, not because I was “gripped” necessarily (although I was enjoying the book entirely) but instead because never in my entire life had I had any less idea about where a novel was going to go. I stayed up that night reading well past midnight because I had to find out and couldn’t rest until I did. The answer is not obvious, um, obviously. This is the story of a woman who runs a repertory cinema with her mother who is suffering from dementia, and who keeps slipping in and out of another woman’s body during thunderstorms. Not occupying the other woman’s consciousness, but being privy to it, and she spots the other woman’s eyes in the mirror, eyes that seem to belong to her sister who died under circumstances the reader doesn’t learn until later.

It’s all so ordinary, that’s the thing. Plausible, even, because all the details are concrete, the geography mapping properly onto reality as I know it. (Quite literally: like much of Gowdy’s work, this is a story set in Toronto.) It reminded me of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of the Lemon Cake, which I read a few years ago. Both books with such understated sorrow, and protagonists named Rose also. Magic realism, but without the magic. Or maybe the point is that the magic is so real, of this world entirely?

I loved Little Sister. Rose becomes obsessed with locating the woman whose body she keeps possessing, craving thunder (which she has the inside track on—her boyfriend is a meteorologist). So much goes unspoken, and the whole novel is about the spaces between us, the desperation for connection, the gap between a first person narrator and third, how we see ourselves and the ways we are seen. All of it very understated, the opposite of cinematic, but it riffs on cinema too because of the setting, all things being connected, the question for reader being: how?

And here is where the magic is. And maybe also it’s the question that is the very point.

May 25, 2017

The Slip, by Mark Sampson

It was a very interesting moment in which to be reading Mark Sampson’s new novel, The Slip, the week after a thoughtless editorial on cultural appropriation led to an idiotic conversation on Twitter, and then the inevitable response referring to lynch-mobs and and witch hunts. In The Slip, Sampson wades into this conversation about outrage and p.c. culture, but with unfathomable thoughtfulness and nuance, and also manages to be hilarious to boot.

But it will take a chapter or two. I have a personal gauge for a narrative voice I’m willing to tolerate, in fiction and non, and if the word “sclerotic” is in your lexicon, you’ve basically lost me. The voice of Sampson’s narrator, absent-minded professor and public intellectual Dr. Philip Sharpe, therefore, requires some patience on the part of the reader, to be willing to entertain his allusions and extensive vocabulary. To come to understand that “entertain” is the very point: this is satire and very very funny. Don’t bother getting your dictionary out, unless you really want to increase your word power—to worry about this is to get bogged down in the details, and I’d advise you instead to lose yourself to the book’s flow.

The situation is this: left-wing intellectual Philip Sharpe says something horrifying in a televised debate with a right-wing pundit who is a woman, and I promise you you will probably gasp on page 37 just like I did. Outrage ensues, a social media furor, angry editorials, student walk-outs, etc. What caused Philip to say what he did? Well, his mind was caught up in domestic troubles, and there’s the fact that try as he might he cannot secure his poppy—the  book is set in early November and to appear poppy-less on television is a national crime. And so he’s not completely in control of his faculties as his opponent tries to get the better of him. In fact, Philip is so far out of the loop that he doesn’t actually register the remark that he made that’s upset so many people. “I can be a bit oblivious,” he says at one point in the text, and I’ll say. So he cannot begin to fathom why people are so worked up about an inarticulate point he made about Canadian corporate executives in which he’d so shamefully denied the categorical imperative.

Of course, Philip Sharpe can’t fathom a lot of things—social media, for one. Or cell-phones. Or his wife’s state of mind lately, and why she refuses to get a job beyond writing a parenting column bimonthly, and what her lack of contribution means for their enormous mortgage. All of which gives Sampson a lot of space to traverse the misunderstanding between Sharpe’s supposed slip and what he’s actually said. He’s accustomed to being a bit out of sync with the world, although he’s a bit curious about why the outcry is so disproportionate. And to give us a bit of background into his situation and his character, Philip delves into his history between chapters concerned with the immediate scandal. His unconventional childhood, his time at Oxford, his first serious relationship, his years of success in academia, and his unexpected marriage in his early 40s, when he finds himself a stepfather.

The chapters about parenthood are wonderful. “When a child refuses to sleep, it can make your evening feel like it’s trapped inside a very bad prose poem—all jarring transitions and fragmented narrative arcs.” This chapter with the bad bedtime ends with Philip already at the end of his tether, looking at his daughter and asking himself a very philosophical question: “Remind me again, my love—why are you even here?” Which launches into a chapter about his daughter’s birth, a home birth through which his wife insisted on The Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” playing over and over again. The chapter had me in hysterics and ended on the most excellent note, portraying the awful and ecstatic tones of parenthood.

Anyway, it all goes like this, swiftly, swiftly—I read the book in two days. Soon the anti-feminists are reaching out to support Philip, and his stepdaughter is receiving nasty notes on Facebook, and even the barkeep in Philip’s local isn’t bothering to talk to him. And then finally, the revelation. What he said isn’t what he thinks he’s said, and Philip is horrified at what he’s done, what people have been thinking. Which allows the narrative to turn into something beyond satire, into more of a critique as well on outrage culture, and outrage-at-outrage culture. In a way, The Slip is an inverted version of Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, with its take on rape culture, feminism and MRAs, and the two books are very interesting companions, making similar points in very different ways.

I loved The Slip. Mark Sampson is my friend, and I read his book intending to avoid full-disclosuring by not writing about it at all, but I liked it so much and have so much to say about it that I really couldn’t help it.

May 22, 2017

Glass Beads, by Dawn Dumont

“Why is Friends on every channel?” is a question posed at the beginning of one of the inter-connected short stories in Dawn Dumont’s new book, Glass Beads, and the answer to that question is the same as the answer to another one: What makes Glass Beads so compulsively readable? A cast of compelling characters each so different and singular that their interactions create interesting conflict, plus sparkly witty dialogue. In the same way that Friends is a show you can have playing in the background, I read Glass Beads in two days. And yet—to say the book is similarly easy (the kind of thing you can have playing in the background) is to undermine its substance, the darkness at its margins and core. But still: the darkness is not the whole point.

Last week on twitter, Tracey Lindberg asked a kind of rhetorical question about the possibility of Indigenous beach reads. A rhetorical question because her point is that Indigenous literature is pushed to be issues-based and doesn’t get to be fun, light and joyful in the way that other literatures do. And the closest answer I have to the idea of an Indigenous beach read is Dawn Dumont’s work, including Glass Beads, which follows Rose’s Run (a book I loved) and Nobody Cries at Bingo. Her work is as smart and funny as you’d expect from a writer whose background includes law and standup comedy, never shying away from big issues and politics (in Rose’s Run, a demon draws on the strength of women to seek justice for innumerable wrongs committed against them by men; in the context of missing and murdered Indigenous women, this is no small statement) but written with a decidedly commercial bent.

Billed as a collection of connected short stories, Glass Beads actually works astoundingly well as a novel, told from four perspectives between  1993 and 2008. Friends Nellie and Julie whose ties go back to childhood on their reserve, although they’re very different. Nellie is stubborn, smart and determined to become a lawyer, whereas Julie is unsettled, rattled by early loss and childhood traumas and given a lot of latitude because of her beauty. Nellie is in love with Everett, who is gorgeous but a bit dumb, and unwilling to give her the commitment she longs for. Abandoned by his parents, Everett carries his own baggage. Rounding out their foursome is Taz, who knows Nellie through the Native Students Council at their university and Everett because Taz buys drugs from his roommate. Taz and Julie become an unlikely couple, on-again and off-again as Everett and Nellie are.

The ties between the four of them deeply wound, binding, ever changing, time and experience bringing them together and apart. Nellie achieves her career goals, but find that there is still much to yearn for. Julie drifts, loses her way, and comes home again, at one point become incarcerated for her part in a fight, and is forced to partake in a substance abuse program even through she doesn’t have a substance abuse problem—but the carpentry program was full and that’s what happens when you’re a human being instead of a statistic. Taz moves from work with the provincial government to become Grand Chief of the Provincial Council of First Nations, with Nellie supporting him professionally. And Everett finally begins to the connect with the culture that was stolen from him when he lost his father, his ties to Nellie cemented when she gets pregnant with their child.

That we can read a book from four different perspectives and still not know everything, and that Dumont can create tension and shocking moments with that space beyond the limits of what we know about these characters is a testament to Glass Beads‘ craftsmanship, and why I consider it a novel more than stories—the book as a whole is deftly plotted. Its characters change and grow, harden yet remain vulnerable, get together and fall apart, and pick up the pieces again, and here we are witnessing all of it. We feel like we know them. Like a certain 1990s’ sitcom, but infinitely more interesting.

May 17, 2017

Dr. Edith Crane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, by Suzette Mayr

Imagine Lucky Jim on acid, is how I’d pitch Suzette Mayr’s new novel, Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, to you, a book whose momentum is swift but in the trajectory of a downward spiral, circling the drain. Just like the cover, actually, hypnotic spiral. Of jackrabbits, instead of the unicorns which had been the overriding motif in Mayr’s Monoceros, which I loved in 2011. Rabbits not like copulating like, but instead the hallucinatory sort—Harvey and Alice in Wonderland, maybe even a bit Donnie Darko. (Please check out Mayr’s answers to CBC Books’ Magic 8 questionnaire to discover the surprising way in which Downton Abbey also infiltrated the novel.)

It’s a campus novel and, new start, new year, Dr. Edith Vane starts out with the best intentions. Her PhD. thesis on African-Canadian pioneer Beulah Crump-Withers is finally about to be published, she has tenure, and a brand new wardrobe, including the long cardigans and a pair of expensive shoes with hourglass heels. To contend with other challenges, she has her therapist on the line who assures Edith that she is indeed the architect of her own life. Never mind the the challenges start piling on—Edith’s evil thesis supervisor reappears in her life as the department’s honorary chair, Edith’s new girlfriend is proving noncommittal and all Edith wants to do is get married; the only graduate student she’s supervising quits her mentorship, plus the Crawley Hall, the brutalist building that is home to them all, is crumbling around her, elevators jamming, maggots dropping from the ceiling, sinkholes devouring the parking lot, and jackrabbits holed up in classrooms, their droppings scattered down the hall. Or maybe that part is just in Edith’s mind. It doesn’t help that she keeps downing bottles of wine.

The momentum of this novel, which I read in two delightful days, comes from the pile-on of absurd tragedies—how could things get any worse? Suzette Mayr taking care to immediately answer the question. And yet it’s so funny, and the energy, and the satire of campus bureaucracy is so spot-on and delicious that I would never ever call this book that goes down-down-down anything like a downer. I loved it.

April 24, 2017

Sputnik’s Children, by Terri Favro

There’s no point in writing a lead-up, and I’m just going to say it: I loved Terri Favro’s Sputnik’s Children in a way that makes my heart feel like it’s on the brink of exploding and my new mission in life is now to persuade everyone to read it. It begins with our heroine, Debbie Reynolds Biondi, creator of the cult comic hero Sputnik Chick: Girl With No Past. She’s a bit washed up, strung out on pills, travelling from one hotel convention room to another, tired of her fans asking her why she’s yet to write Sputnik Chick’s origin story. The reasons are complicated, but namely: that it’s actually her own story. Debbie is Sputnik Chick, a Cold War nostalgic, delivered to our universe from a parallel one (Atomic Mean Time) that was destroyed by nuclear war in 1979, Debbie sacrificing her life, true love, and her identity to deliver humanity to the safety of Earth Standard Time (which you and I know as “here and now”) the parallel worlds safely merged.

But its complicated, and Favro takes us back to the beginning, to Debbie’s upbringing in Atomic Mean Time, a realm not unlike our own except for key differences—the Cold War is actual, there is no peace movement in the 1960s or calls for nuclear proliferation. From a young age, Debbie is visited by a figure known as “The Trespasser,” although he only sometimes turns up in her realm with an awareness that she is the chosen one who is going to save the world. Jumping in and out of time, The Trespasser complicates Debbie’s past, present and future, but the prophesies prove correct when Debbie is enlisted to save the world as the inevitable nuclear showdown finally arrives.

So it’s all true, except that Debbie’s addicted to booze and pills and her sister reminds her that she’s always been one to make up stories to hide the traumatic facts and experiences she’d prefer to avoid. Although Debbie’s a compelling enough storyteller that we believe her story to be true. In fact, we want it to be true. And the novel exists in this fascinating state of narrative possibility, in-betweenness, a puzzle whose pieces all fit but the surface has two faces. Not to mention the story itself is exhilarating, so hard to put down, rich with comic book twists, explosions, villains, and familiar tropes that are fresh and surprisingly rendered.

It’s A Wrinkle in Time meets Wonder Woman—with a literary twist of Madeline Sonik’s award-winning Cold War essay collection Afflictions and Departures. And easily one of my favourite books of 2017.

April 17, 2017

A Shimmer of Hummingbirds, by Steve Burrows

Last year I made the error of inviting my birder friend Julia to an event in early May, to which she gave her regrets that the event would coincide with the peak of spring migration. “Sigh,” she wrote to me. ” I’ll be busy oohing-and-ahhhing at some warbler or another…” Because in spring, as birders and friends-of-birders know, there are some things you can count on. And adding to that list of things, at least for the past four years, is a new title in Steve Burrows’ Birder Murder Mystery series, which I’ve been reading with such pleasure since A Siege of Bitterns in 2014. This is my version of spring migration. And the best news: the books keep getting better and better.

A Shimmer of Hummingbirds begins with Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune departing for Colombia for a birdwatching trip, although everybody knows he’s really going to find out what happened to his brother in the lead-up to the tragic crime for which he was charged—and the other Jejeune has been on the run from the law ever since, which complicates things. Meanwhile, Domenic’s girlfriend Lindy knows what’s going on, but her own security becomes threatened with the release of a shady figure from Domenic’s past. And it turns out Domenic’s not safe either as his arrival in South America has raised red flags for the guide and company behind his birding tour—the same outfit his brother had been involved with. And then at the centre of it all, back at Saltmarsh, a young accountant has been murdered and she has ties to a group of investors each of whom has something to hide. There are barn owls. And Jejeune’s former boss and nemesis is brought in to handle the case, which makes things awkward for Jejeune’s colleagues…particularly when it becomes clear how much better everything is without the quiet and brooding Jejeune around…

The pieces come together very nicely, and I’ll forgive the part where Jejeune turns up in a foreign country again and just happens to run into a friend. I loved this book, and read it with pleasure. I continue to admire so much that Burrows has provided his complicated detective with an excellent relationship with a fantastic woman who is one of the best characters in the book. The plot is not too crowded, the momentum perfect and compelling, and while the ending was completely satisfying, Burrows also manages a mini-cliffhanger that leaves me altogether ready for the arrival of Book 5 next spring.

April 6, 2017

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, by Merilyn Simonds

Even if I wasn’t scheduled to be on a panel with Merilyn Simonds in Hamilton this weekend talking about digital storytelling (but I am! It’s gritLIT and you can buy tickets here. Tickets are also still available for my blogging workshop!) I would have picked up her new book, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, in a  heartbeat. Because it’s a beautiful hardcover book about books whose endpapers are to die for. And the story itself is a magnificent hybrid of memoir and non-fiction (“Did you know”, I kept imploring everybody who would listen, “that the invention of the spinning loom would lead to a surfeit of rags, which would help bring about a revolution in the production of paper? What a wondrous thing is that. How can you go about as a bookish person in the world without know that fact?”) about Simonds’ experience producing a book via old-fashioned letterpress while at the same time rendering a digital version.

This is not a book that bridges the digital/print divide, but instead a book that asserts that there is no such thing. Simonds was an early adopter of e-reading technologies and is savvy about and grateful for the possibilities these hold for writers and readers and alike, but she also knows that it’s not reason to throw the baby out with the library. “Why is it that we assume each new thing condemns what went before as obsolete? We know that’s not true. We can read a book, stream a Netflix movie, then listen to the radio as we drive to the opera, read a precis of the narrative on our iPads as we wait for a performance to begin./ We can have it all.”

I wrote all over this book, underlinings and paragraphs bracketed. It articulated so much of what I know as a booklover, and what I’ve learned in the last few months as I’ve become an author: “I’m just the writer. I used to think that was important, that the entire scaffolding of the publishing world was built on the foundation of the written word. Now that I am deep inside this architecture, I see that I’m just another two-by-four, doing my bit to keep the entire edifice from collapsing in a heap.”

Simonds takes her reader through the process of producing a book of short pieces for a small press in Kingston run by the inimitable Hugh Barclay. Along with the story of her own relationship to print, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint is about Barclay’s career as an “innovator” and how he found his way into a job designing wheelchairs and how that led to his ownership of a printing press and the advent of Thee Hellbox Press—sounds inevitable, right? The book is divided five main sections—Paper, Type, Ink, Press and Book—and Simonds outlines her experience at each stage of the process, along with fascinating historical context—like how rags led to paper, or how Koreans had come shockingly close to creating moveable type but the complexity of their alphabet kept them from doing so, or how books weren’t stood up on a shelf as we know them before the 1700s and instead lay on their sides with pages facing and the owner would write the title of the book on the page-side.

These rich details are what propels the plot forward, as does Simonds’ evident passion for the entire project and books in general, and, ultimately, the production of her book with Hugh. At the same time, she is busy creating a digital version of the book with her son, a designer, who is also tasked with creating the woodcuts for the print edition (and he has to create small icons of these for the e-book, because the technology doesn’t allow the prints to appear as shadows beneath the text the way that they can on paper). Learning about the ins and outs of the processes, print and digital, the ways in which they are similar and different, complementary and wholly foreign, was so illuminating.

For me, this book never misses a mark, which makes my favourite part of it seem a bit ironic. When Merilyn discovers a fingerprint faintly smudged on a corner of a page from her book, and worries they might have to go back a step in a slow and tedious process. But Hugh shrugs off her concern: “We’re not striving for perfection here. That fingerprint—that’s what makes this copy distinct. Human. It says, ‘Somebody printed this.'” Which is kind of the whole point.

April 5, 2017

Autumn, by Ali Smith

I am baffled by Ali Smith’s new novel, Autumn, but not in a  bad way. Not remotely. Whereas I found her previous book, the much acclaimed How To Be Both a bit much—it was long. It was also half-set in a world that’s not my own, which is one of my failures as a reader, that I am so much less engaged with literature that isn’t a reflection of my own circumstance. But Autumn is firmly set right now, give or take nine months or so. In the aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder and the Brexit vote in June, and just this general sense of undoingness and that the world is not quite what we knew it to be. Which is what I count on literature for, to make the pieces into something that tells a story. This is why I’ve never thought that literature should be that axe to shatter the frozen ice inside me or whatever, but more like a paddle to steer us to shore.

Smith’s character picks up a copy of A Tale of Two Cities, it was the best of times, it was worst of times…: “The words had acted like a charm. They’d released it all, in seconds. They’d made everything happening stand just far enough away. / It was nothing less than magic./ Who needs a passport?/ Who am I? Where am I? What am I?/ I’m reading.”

This too: “…whoever makes up the story makes up the world.”

And now you should read Laura Miller’s review of Autumn, which was most of the reason I picked up this book (and I was definitely not sorry.) 

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