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Pickle Me This

March 21, 2019

Crow, by Amy Spurway

It sounds like a book you might have read before—Stacey “Crow” Fortune leaves her flashy Toronto marketing job behind when she’s diagnosed with untreatable brain tumours and flies home to Cape Breton to face her fate, returning to the chaos of her mother’s trailer and grappling with the struggles of the community she thought she’d left behind. There is death, impoverishment, addiction, and long-buried family secrets—same old sad-sack CanLit, right? But wait. Because Crow, Amy Spurway’s debut novel, is a comedy, both larger than and bursting with life. Instead of a “bucket list”, Crow has a “fuck it list,” items she just can’t with anymore, which includes suffering fools or putting up with anybody’s bullshit. She’s calling it as she sees it, even if she isn’t always seeing it right, and she’s my favourite unabashed, fierce and brilliant heroine who has both a way with language and some neurological issues since Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia in the Netflix series Russian Doll.

Part of the joys of Russian Doll was its ensemble cast, and so too it is with Crow. Crow comes home to her two best friends, Allie and Char (who has also just returned home with her baby whose father is a Congolese diamond smuggler, and who is also deaf in one ear and says most words the way she’d always heard them: “F’eyed known there was a bomb fire, ida brung some bleeding’ marchmallows.” Plus there’s Crow’s mother, Effie, a long suffering housekeeper at the Greeting Gale Inn; Effie’s gossiping sister, Peggy; her old flame and pot dealer Willy the Gimp; plus Becky Chickenshit, Shirl Short, Bonnie Bigmouth, Duke the Puke, and the Spensers, Crow’s dead father’s family who ran the mines that kept the locals in employ (and sometimes killed them) for generations.

It’s a meandering plot, but then what journey towards death isn’t? And there were moments where I wondered if Spurway was really going to be able to pull this off, a comedy novel about serious business with a cast of hilarious misfits that could come close to bordering on caricature. The most incredible material but it requires authorial deftness to do it right—but Amy Spurway is the real thing. Her glorious sentences are something to behold in, from the very first few: “I come from a long line of lunatics and criminals. Crazies on one side of the family tree, crooks on the other, although the odd crazy has a touch of crook, and vice versa. I am the weary, bitter fruit—or perhaps the last nut—of this rotten old hybrid, with its twisted roots sunk deep in dysfunctional soil.”

The adjective “brave” gets thrown around all too often in regards to literature, but I’m going to pitch it here, because it’s right for a variety of reasons. First of all, a book about death—and mental illness, and disability, and abortion, and spousal abuse, and class, and poverty—and the narrative takes no shortcuts or shies away from the hard stuff. I kept waiting for the part where it veered off course or fell into the saccharine, but that point never happened. Crow delighted me and amazed me the further I read, with its freshness, its daring, its refusal to conform (and the projectile vomiting). The bulbs that Crow finds in her mother’s trailer, and what comes up in the spring—it’s all just perfect (but no spoilers). And oh my gosh, the ending—it was literally stunning. The narrative entire is a veritable tightrope walk, a feat that’s performed with style and verve, and it’s absolutely dazzling.

“And then there’s the bigger, more grandiose questions about will happen when I’m gone,” Crow considers. “Where am I going? Anywhere? Nowhere? Somewhere? Somewhere good? Will there be tea and squares and laughing and crying and swearing there, because if there isn’t, well then I don’t want to go.” And you really can’t blame her. After 300 pages in this incredible novel, I wasn’t ready to be finished either.

March 19, 2019

Notes Towards Recovery, by Louise Ells

There is a sense of the foreboding in the first story of Louise Ells’ debut collection Notes Towards Recovery, a story called “Erratics.” “I wonder what’s left,” the narrator wonders, considering the place in Ontario’s Muskoka region where her family had spent their summers during her childhood. “Later, I’d read about the Lindbergh case in one of the Reader’s Digests that lined the bookshelves of every privy on the Lake,” she explains, and she fears for her younger brother from the time he is a baby, as he grows up five years younger than she is, and the story keeps returning to the big rock the children jump from into the lake. Is someone going to get hurt? But what happens turns out to be something the narrator never even thinks to anticipate, and this is a point underlying the stories in this collection, how different fate is from the stories we’re told about who we’re supposed to be, and how far what really happened is from the memories we carry.

Before I read these stories, I was first intrigued by Louise Ells’ biography—working as a chef, a roofer, co-pilot on a submarine, and she would eventually write her doctoral dissertation on the works of Alice Munro. And Munro’s influence shows in these stories, which are very much Ontario stories, most of them set outside of Ottawa in Renfrew County. They are concerned with memory, with history, and are wary of nostalgia. Even in those golden long-ago summers, husbands were cheating, mental illness was ignored, pregnant girls were sent to an aunts, and same-sex relationships were considered deviant. And the protagonists of Ells’ stories are left to grapple with those history, which they struggle to let go of, even with the trauma. Trying to make their way forward into the future: the story “Mirrored” begins: “I thought I’d manage without a map.” Spoiler: It’s not so simple.

I liked these stories a lot, although the collection itself might have benefited from some pruning—the stories near the beginning of the book were stronger than those towards the end, although it might also have been that there are twenty-one stories in the collection with recurring themes and ideas, and they’d lost their freshness as I got to the final third and started to blend together. Or possibly this is a story collection that’s not best read straight through, one story after another. But that is how I read it, not least because most of these stories themselves were strong and compelling. Notes Towards Recovery is a remarkable debut.

March 14, 2019

Heavy Flow, by Amanda Laird

I may read a lot, but it’s never a challenge to name one single title in answer to the proverbial demand, “Name a book that changed your life.” Always, it’s Taking Charge of Your Fertility, by Toni Weschler, which I read ten years ago, shortly before becoming pregnant with my first child. And while I’d had a fairly good idea of how to get pregnant before reading the book, and had even been pregnant once before but completely by accident, there was so much more I didn’t know than what I did about the things my body had been doing for years, things I’d never paid any mind to. I learned things about vaginal mucus that blew my mind, and I’ve never looked back. But I’ve also not thought about it all much deeply a whole lot since, especially since I finished having children. My menstrual cycle, I’ve been thinking, is now pretty much redundant—but then it turns out that fertility is only the tip of the menstrual iceberg. (And there’s an image to keep in mind.)

And then along comes Amanda Laird to inform me of what I’ve been missing, first with her Heavy Flow period podcast (which I’ve become devoted to) and now her new book, Heavy Flow: Breaking the Curse of Menstruation. A book that shatters the myth that fertility is what the menstrual cycle is all about. Laird comes as menstruation from the perspective of a holistic nutritionist (albeit one who was making period-positive zines two decades ago and dabbled as an amateur gynaecologist aka the friend you come to with all your weird period questions), and situates the menstrual cycle in the broader perspective of general health. Because your menstrual cycle (which is about more than just those five to seven days in which you’re bleeding) also impacts bone density, breast health, heart health, and your nervous system. Because your menstrual cycle can be a key indicator of other health problems if symptoms go awry—and if symptoms are always awry (for example, painful periods, which too many doctors dismiss as “normal) it often does mean that something is wrong. Although it’s hard to address those concerns, because of menstrual taboos—even in this period positive age in which access to menstrual products is beginning to be a major topic of political discussion, too many people are still expected to put up with and shut about period pain, and remain in the dark about how and why their bodies do what they do.

(I especially love Laird’s pragmatic view on health, and politics, and everything. In everything she does, she resists binaries, and complicates matters in really intelligent ways, which is altogether rare and refreshing.)

Heavy Flow has been a revelation to me, just as Taking Charge of Your Fertility was a decade ago. I’ve learned why my menstrual cycle is still worth paying attention to (and from the podcast, I’ve been more enlightened about peri-menopause and menopause than many other menstruators get to be), how to advocate for myself to medical professionals, and how things like nutrition and lifestyle can impact hormonal health. I also learned how the fallopian tube got its name—which was the first point in reading this book at which I exclaimed. “Oh my god!” in consternation with the patriarchy but it was not the last.

March 13, 2019

A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle

“Why all of this, my Lord and my God? Either bring the world to an end or remedy these evils! No heart can support this any longer.” Vicky Austin is reading to her beloved Grandfather, who is dying of leukaemia, and is startled when he bursts out with this utterance. And he explains, “Teresa of Avila said that, in the sixteenth century. It should comfort me that there have always been outrages to the Divine Majesty. But it doesn’t.” He points to the headline in a nearby newspaper: “The headline was a plane crash, a big one, with everybody killed.” What is particularly outrageous about the story is that after the people were killed, others had ransacked the wreckage and the bodies for money and valuables—but this is not my point here. Instead I want to talk about the uncanny way that Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin books have been speaking to the moment I’ve been reading them, even decades after they were written.

Because a big plane crash that killed everybody on board was also top of the news yesterday, 18 Canadians among those who perished on the Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed on Sunday. And Vicky Austin talks to her grandfather about how she’s been avoiding the news that summer—it’s been a heady time with her grandfather’s illness and the death of a family friend. And Vicky considers, “But not reading the paper only kept me from not knowing things; it didn’t keep them from happening.”

Grandfather, anticipating Twitter in 1980 (when the book was published), says to Vicky, “Maybe instant information isn’t good for us. We can’t absorb it.” Oh, Grandfather. You have no idea.

These books relationship to time continues to fascinate me, seemingly linear and more straightforward than the Wrinkle In Time series. And yet there is more going on than is immediately apparent—first of all, Vicky Austin’s father and another character in this book have all been involved with the research of Dr. Calvin O’Keefe, who is Meg’s companion (and eventually husband) in the Wrinkle series. Which is to say that they inhabit the same universe. But time also unfolds at a different pace than the Wrinkle books do. This book is also written more than a decade after The Young Unicorns, and yet set just a handful of months later. And finally, there is the incredible sense I have that I’m meant to be reading this books right here in 2019, and the reading experiences I’m having are so visceral. I made a chicken dish the other night that was the same dinner I made when I was reading The Young Unicorns, and I was full of Young Unicorns nostalgia. I’d only read it two weeks before, but still. I’ve found all these books so utterly absorbing.

This one is set the summer following the big road trip in The Moon By Night, after the year in New York that was depicted in Unicorns. The Austins have returned to Grandfather’s island to be with him at the end of his life, but focus is shifted when the family’s good friend dies of a heart attack during a sea rescue. The sea rescue turns out to be for Zachary Gray, who was attempting suicide after the death of his mother (who was cryogenically frozen!). And yes, Zach’s back, and as obnoxious as ever, but Vicky is a year older and able to call out his bullshit in a way she wasn’t strong enough to do before. Meanwhile, she’s found out that she has dolphin ESP and is participating in experiments with Adam Eddington at the marine biology station—not that he ever offers to compensate her for her labour, of course, though the station is a pretty bare bones operation.

Which brings me to gender and the Austins, which has shifted a bit since 1968 when the previous novel was published. I’m not saying that Mother wears pants now (because as we learned in The Moon By Night, Daddy doesn’t like women in pants). But none of her children call her “nothing” in this book for her absence of a profession, and she even contemplates doing something with her life when the time comes that the children are grown and gone. She also mentions “inverse sexism” twice, which is kind of terrible. Advising her daughter Suzy that it would only be “inverse sexism” that cheated her out of her understanding her deserved place in the definition of “mankind,” and also calling it when it’s implied that her choice to leave her musical career for marriage was somehow unprogressive. But that sexism is mentioned at all is a kind of progress, I suppose. Vicky is also much less passive in her relations with the young men who are courting her (three of them!). It’s really clear though in reading these books that Madeleine L’Engle was a decidedly unfeminist writer, never mind Meg Murry’s fierce intelligence and strength of will (and remember that Meg in subsequent books becomes just “Mrs. O’Keefe,” wife of the brilliant biologist).

(It is worth noting that Suzy Austin remains unconvinced about her mother’s explanation for “mankind.” I like that L’Engle leaves the space, the possibility, the question there.)

I would like to know more about L’Engle in relation to feminism, and I wondered if she considered it a dogma worth resisting. All the books in the series so far have been about resisting dogma in the context of religion, even as the books themselves are so religious and concerned with issues of morality and mortality. The underlying message in each book seems to be about the danger of thinking we understand everything, about God and the universe in particular. (A thing Meg Murry’s mother once told her is, “But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.”) Vicky recalls her grandfather telling her, “As St. Augustine says: If you think you understand it, it isn’t God.” Not knowing seems to be fundamental to understanding, which to a religious person is the definition of faith, but this idea is applicable for those of us who don’t have a religion too (or those of us who are trying to figure out feminism). Just as darkness goes with light, life with death, all of it bound together, this miraculous world and universe.

March 6, 2019

Autopsy of a Boring Wife and The Matchmaker’s List

It’s been over two years since Marissa Stapley and I sat down to talk about the state of Canadian commercial fiction, and while I’m not sure the genre has yet received the respect that is its due, I’m glad to see there have been changes on some fronts. When I asked Stapley what could be done to promote diversity in commercial fiction and challenge its glaring whiteness, she dared to be optimistic, saying, “There’s room for all the stories. The tent is getting bigger and bigger. It’s exciting.” And here in 2019 there is demonstrable evidence that this is true, not least of all commercial and critical success by writers such as S.K. Ali (who writes YA) and Uzma Jalaluddin, whose Ayesha at Last had its film rights scooped up last year. Finally, commercial fiction lovers are getting the chance to read great books from a diverse range of perspectives—including two titles I’ve loved lately.

Autopsy of a Boring Wife, translated from French by Arielle Aaronson, is by award-winning Quebec writer Marie-Renee Lavoie, the story of a woman whose husband has left her for another (younger) woman, because she’s boring, Diane supposes. Because she can’t even dance: “I was born boring. The gene in question slipped into the double helix of my DNA during conception.” But Diane, of course, is anything but boring, and the narrative follows her through the painful aftermath of her husband’s confession, their separation, and her attempts to reorient herself in this brand new life, which she takes on with aplomb via a sledgehammer to severals walls in her home and antique furniture. She follows her best friend Claudine’s mad schemes to get on the rebound, makes confessions to her therapist, attempts to make a move on a coworker and ends up with losing her boots (this is not a euphemism), gets delicious revenge on her husband’s girlfriend, hides in the pantry while the realtor shows her house, and does her best not to take it all out of her children. And Diane’s incredible love for her adult children is what grounds her, and what grounds this novel that’s full of quirks and zaniness, as Diane talks about how parenthood is a combination of visceral fear and a kind of gratitude.

The novel is written in the first person, mostly dialogue and little exposition, and the reader has to read between the lines to get a real understanding of the extent of Diane’s pain and suffering, sledgehammer aside. (She’s pretty blasé about the sledgehammer. Her neighbours are certainly concerned.) Autopsy of a Boring Wife is slapstick, funny and absurd, but underlined with a tenderness and poignance that will have you rooting for happily ever after after that.

Happily ever after is also the object of Sonya Lalli’s first novel, The Matchmaker’s List, although Raina and her grandmother have different ideas about what that entails. She’s just about to turn 30, which is the age she’d promised Nani (years ago, when 30 seemed an eternity away) that she’d be married, and though she’s still pining for a man who broke her heart and more devoted to her job in downtown Toronto as an investment banker than to finding a new relationship, she agrees to go on dates with a list of eligible men that Nani has selected for her. Which sounds like set-up enough for mix-ups and mishaps, because some of the men are ridiculous, and Raina never holds back on letting them know what she thinks of them, but Lalli throws another wrench in the works when Raina’s Nani incorrectly infers that Raina is gay, which rocks their Hindu-Canadian community and creates even more trouble for Raina. It’s possible the novel is a bit too packed—Raina’s old boyfriend shows up in town; her best friend is getting married and Raina has feelings for a groomsman; Raina’s wayward mother (who had Raina as a teenager, which makes Nani all the more determined to marry her granddaughter off properly) drifts in and out of Raina’s life; and a family friend who actually is gay struggles with whether or not to let his parents in on his secret. But Lalli’s writing is smart and funny, and her characters are refreshingly flawed and multi-faceted, which made reading this novel about family and friendship absolutely a delight.

February 28, 2019

The Homecoming, by Andrew Pyper

What I’ve always loved best about Andrew Pyper’s novels isn’t necessarily their plots, the super suspense, or the scary scenes that have literally kept me up at night. Although all these things are what make his books compelling, of course, and why I’ve been a fan of his work ever since I read The Killing Circle more than ten years ago. But for me the biggest attraction of an Andrew Pyper novel are the human connections, the relationships that make the stakes of the suspense plot so much higher—the father/son relationship in The Killing Circle, the brother and sister in The Damned, and another set of siblings in his latest book, The Homecoming.

Which is a weird book, and it’s obvious from the novel’s opening that something is a little askew. The Quinlan family isn’t quite normal, even beyond the ways in which they know they’re not normal—their father has just died, a figure who was always distant and often absent, and who has invited all of them together to receive their inheritance whose terms require that they spend 30 days at a remote lodge deep in a forest in the Pacific Northwest. And they agree to it, Aaron, a doctor; his sister Franny, a recovering addict grieving the death of her young child; their mother; and their fourteen year old sister Bridge, the person to whom Aaron is closer than anyone else in the world. They agree to it in hopes that the experience will give them answers to the questions they’ve had for years about the man their father/husband was, because what could be worse than so much not knowing?

Turns out: a lot. Other surprise guests arrive at the lodge, it becomes clear they’re all even more isolated than they thought, the woods are haunted, there’s an abandoned Christian summer camp with Satanic graffiti, and someone’s skulking about with a hatchet. Beyond the confines of the forest is a world that might be described as dystopian were it not for its resemblance to the present day, with militarized power, civil strife, and racial divides, all of which makes the action happening at the lodge seem that much more pressing, dire and claustrophobic.

I have to confess to having read a lot of books lately in which a character realizes that “Everything he knows about his life is wrong!” but this one pretty much takes the cake. Indeed there’s a twist, and it’s a wild one, but not a cheap one, and it works, and not least of all because Pyper has creative a huge emotional investment in the relationship between Aaron and his sister Bridge. Their connection makes the twists matter so much more, and underlines the poignance of the novel’s ending. The Homecoming didn’t frighten me as much as it thrilled me and moved me, which is a pretty remarkable combination. I liked this book a lot.

February 27, 2019

Happy Parents, Happy Kids, by Ann Douglas

Early on in my career in motherhood, friends would recommend Ann Douglas’s parenting books to me on the basis that she wasn’t an ideologue. “She recognizes that there’s not just one way to do things,” I remember people explaining, because she recognized that there was not just one kind of child, or one one of family, or just one simple way to make a baby fall asleep at night. It’s a kind of pragmatism that can be rare in the parental guidance industry, and which has endeared her to a generation of readers looking for advice applicable for the world we live in as opposed to an ideal one. (Douglas’s most recent book before her latest was Parenting Through the Storm, advice for parents whose children are living with mental illness.)

Her new release is Happy Parents, Happy Kids, built on the premise that in order to make positive change in family life and the life of a child, a parent should start with herself, with her own wellbeing. A suggestion that is more important than it has ever been, perhaps, because parenthood itself has never been harder. Fashioned into a verb, made into a competitive sport on display with social media, complicated by differing philosophies and an insistence that the stakes are high for everything. Because what does the future hold? Douglas’s first chapter is called “Parenting in an Age of Anxiety,” and she goes on to illuminate how parents are challenged by questions of work/life balance, why it’s easy to always feel distracted, and how it’s too easy to lose focus on the parts of having children that are wonderful and rewarding.

Her advice on avoiding distracted parenting is really terrific (the only social media I have on my phone is Instagram, but since reading Happy Parents… I have removed the app from my phone’s main screen and turned off notifications, and my life is better for it), and she has similar suggestions, backed up with research, for connecting with your children, with your partner, for figuring out what is important to you and what your priorities are in your family life, for living with stress and hardship, overcoming past trauma, choosing calm over “stressed,” the benefits of being your authentic self as a parent, and how to resist a goal-oriented approach to being a parent: “Parenting is endlessly inefficient—and that’s okay.” Implicit in every part of this book is an understanding that families come in all shapes and sizes, with a wide variety of challenges and every kind of normal. There is a lot to work with here, and not all of it is applicable to my life at the moment, but I can foresee moments where all of it might be. This is the kind of book that would be good to keep close at hand, to dip in and out of, because you know (as the book knows) that the only sure thing have having children is that everything is changing all the time.

While “Be the change you want to see in the world” (or “Be the happy you want to see in your family”) is worthwhile and really practical advice, however, it’s only the beginning of the story, and what I love about Happy Parents, Happy Kids is that Douglas knows that. “Recognize that many of the problems that we are grappling with as parents are too big to solve on our own,” she writes in the book’s first chapter. “Systemic problems require systemic solutions, after all. So look for opportunities to join forces with other people who share your desire to create a world that’s kinder and friendlier to parents and kids.” She couples her individual-based approach to self-improvement with an awareness that society itself also needs to change, and that part of the reason that having children can be so overwhelming is because the system is stacked against us. And it’s only when we join forces and work together that things can begin to change.

The book’s final section is all about the necessity of building a village—we featured an excerpt on 49thShelf last month about the challenges and opportunities of online community. And this chapter sums up what underlines the entire book—that we can only do this all together. (I’ve also been signed up for Douglas’s newsletter, The Villager, for the last few months, with her thoughts and ideas about creating community and finding common group in an ever-shifting world, and I love every instalment.)

She writes, “The issues we’re grasping with are so much bigger than any of us, which makes them all the more challenging to resolve. The fact, it’s going to take all of us pulling together to make the situation significantly better by making changes at the personal, political, and cultural level. It may start with you, but it can’t end with you…” It’s about building a better world for the people we’re raising, and raising the kind of people that world needs.

February 21, 2019

Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions, by Briallen Hopper

Of all the surprising realities I’ve lately found myself facing, none is more surprising than this one: On Tuesday night I stayed up long past my bedtime because I couldn’t stop reading an essay on Cheers. Right? The essay was “Everything You’ve Got,” from Briallen Hopper’s brand new essay collection Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions, about the joys of rewatching the show on Netflix and how it bridges her reality as an academic with working-class origins. It’s been a long time since I thought this hard about Sam and Diane, and the last time I did I was eleven years old or thereabouts, so the thinking has become a bit more deep and nuanced, but the essay was terrific writing about making your way in the world whilst in your ’30s, whatever you get up to when your dreams of Major League baseball stardom are all done.

Cheers, of course, is a show about friends, and so are most of the essays in Hopper’s collection, which I read over a weekend now named in our province “Family Day” in honour of the statutory holiday. Hard to Love serving as an appropriate balance, the idea that family needn’t be based in biology or marriage, but can be based in friendships instead, which Hopper doesn’t even make a case for because her experience demonstrates it plain as a fact can. The book’s opening essay is “Lean On: A Declaration of Dependence,” which you can read online here, and I loved it, a story about how there is nothing wrong with leaning on each other. “I’ll never stop singing along with Bill Withers. I believe we all need somebody to lean on. But sometimes it seems like there are two American creeds, self-reliance and marriage, and neither of them is mine.”

This book is a collection of so many of my own fascinations: “Pandora in Blue Jeans” is all about Grace Metalious’s author photo, which is followed by an essay on Shirley Jackson and domesticity. Barbara Pym is referenced more than once, and then “Tending My Oven” and there are recipes. She writes beautifully about her complicated relationship with her brother through the lens of “Franny and Zooey.” “Coasting” is about the network that emerged as she and a few others become caregivers for a friend with cancer. In “The Foundling Museum” and “Moby-Dick,” she writes about her desire to have a child, and how her chosen family have supported her in this choice and process. The final essay “Girls of a Golden Age” about her community in New Haven, and plans to put down roots and purchase her apartment building along with friends—but then along comes a job offer in New York. Goodbye to all that. And also, hello.

It turns out that Hard to Love just isn’t, and never more than when matters are messy and complicated. These are essays, beautifully written, rich and generous with twists and turns, and insight.

February 19, 2019

The Young Unicorns, by Madeleine L’Engle

My Madeleine L’Engle/Austins project continued this weekend when I read The Young Unicorns, the third book in the Austins series. A series that is all-over-the-place in the most interesting way, in terms of genre in particular. Because this book (whose narrative does not, in fact, include a single unicorn, in case you were curious) is a dark and plot-driven mystery, very different from the previous two novels which were episodic. It’s also narrated in the third-person and comprises points of view from the entire Austin family. And I don’t remember if I ever picked this book up when I was a child, but I can understand why the Austin series as a whole confused me. Each book is a very different creature, this one set in a gritty and crime-ridden New York City where gang violence and corruption are endemic, where the Austin family has recently relocated to while Dr. Austin, a country doctor, takes up the opportunity to study surgical lasers at a prestigious research lab.

A surprising detail I learned while reading posts and other articles on this book (this one in particular!) was that not only did L’Engle write her books in set two different systems of time (chronos and kairos), but some of the series themselves were written out of sequence. So that The Arm of the Starfish (which I’ve never read) about Meg Murry’s daughter Polly was published in 1965, before either of the two books that immediately followed A Wrinkle In Time sequentially—which surely posed narrative challenges for their author. As I’ve been reading the Austin books I’ve also found it really illuminating to consider each novel in its own historical context—The Moon By Night (1963) informed by the Cuban Missile Crisis and fears of a nuclear holocaust, and now The Young Unicorns, which was published in 1968 and certainly informed by race riots and social unrest of the late-1960s, which is directly referenced in the text—although in her author’s note, L’Engle explains that her story takes place “not in the present but in that time in the future when many changes only projected today may have become actualities.”

Which is significant, because of how timely so many of historical concerns of The Young Unicorns seem for a reader in 2019, just as the previous book’s did. (When I was young, I thought it would be cool to live through the 1960s. Having now lived through the 1960s redux, I’ve changed my mind.) This novel is asking questions about responding to social unrest, about who to trust, whether we can trust anyone, or if trust itself is a fool’s game. It’s also an exploration of the nature of freedom, in particular to how it pertains to religion. Is obedience freedom? Is disobeying freedom, and when isn’t it? What does it mean to have peace if freedom is undermined to achieve it? (And this is where the title comes in, in reference to a quotation about unicorns that cannot be caught by the hunter but instead “can only be tamed of his own free will.”)

One could say the following of all of L’Engle’s books, but it’s especially relevant here: It’s so weird. Country Doctor Austin has been transformed into a scientist (basically Meg Murry’s dad), and Rob Austin is Charles-Wallace reborn, innocent and purely good, and they even have a reliable hound with uncanny awareness of the presence of evil. The Austins have rented the upper floors of an old mansion on Riverside Drive whose lower levels belong to a scholar and his musical prodigy daughter, Emily, who has been blind since a mysterious attack a few years before. Emily takes piano lessons from the eccentric Dr. Theo, and is helped in her studies and all around by Josiah “Dave” Davidson, a former gang member who was even more formerly than that a chorister at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, which looms large in this novel, its catacombs leading through tunnels to abandoned subway stations and there is even a genie who mysteriously appears when the Austin children rub a lamp in an antique shop.

Dave is Black, and we meet him in the novel’s first sentence, and it’s significant, I think, that nowhere in the novel is his race explicitly stated, but we’re meant to infer it because he’s an “ex-hood” who lives in a Harlem tenement. (Race is stated a few times elsewhere in the book—the Cathedral’s Dean is Puerto Rican, and also an “ex-hood;” also, the two scientists who performed Dr. Austin’s job before him are Chinese and Indian, and a character makes a racist statement about their Asian-ness, at one point, but this character is also literally an arch-villain, so this might be the point.)

That race is otherwise absent from the novel is significant though, especially based on its 1968 publication year and its references to riots, mobs run amok. But this was also the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, and to remove race from the story of rioting and social unrest in northern American cities in 1968 is disingenuous. There is a suggestion too that the rioting and violence is thoughtless and rootless, violence for the sake of violence. But maybe this is what happens when you’re the type of person who doesn’t see colour or write colour, and the definition of progressivism in 1968 for many is that the Austin family regularly had a Black boy sit with them at their table, never mind that his Blackness is never delineated.

While a compelling and gripping read, I also found the novel a bit difficult and disorienting. Part of that is the nature of a book that is all about puzzles, tricks, and mystery, but I’m not sure that was it entirely. There is a dinner party scene where Dr. Austin is discussing his work with the Micro-Ray laser with the visiting Canon Tallis, and then the children leave the table, conversation shifts, and then two pages later, Canon Tallis asks, “Just what is your work, Doctor?” And Dr. Austin replies, “I design and make a small surgical instrument known as the Micro-Ray.” “This is on the principle of the laser?” Canon Tallis asks, and I want to yell at him, “Weren’t you even listening when you were talking about this two pages ago????”

So was it a mistake? But then strange to find a mistake in a brand new edition of the book first published fifty years ago, no? Elsewhere, there is also a reference to the revolutionary work of Dr. Calvin O’Keefe on starfish regeneration, which wonderfully blurs the lines between L’Engle’s series, but then in the previous Austin book, set just six months before, Vicky Austin had referenced A Wrinkle in Time as a literary work as she wishes her family could “tesser” across America just like Meg and Charles Wallace Murry. An inconsistency too or something more interesting than that, and I do love the idea that the Austin’s realism is not quite what it seems.

Calvin O’Keefe’s starfish work is from 1965’s The Arm of the Starfish (ostensibly the sixth book after Wrinkle…), which this reviewer found similar to The Young Unicorns but more problematic and less compelling. And in her review she also lays out the problem of Meg Murry, fierce and brave heroine of A Wrinkle In Time, but one who is forever playing second fiddle to a brilliant male character, whether it be her husband or her brother. I have always loved A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third book in the series, and I’d always hoped that the reason Meg Murry O’Keefe is sitting in her parents’ kitchen while her husband is out saving the world from nuclear annihilation is because she’s nine-months-pregnant with their first child. But if Starfish is any indication, Meg Murry retired from being a feminist icon as soon as she comes of age: Always called Mrs. O’Keefe, she is calm, reassuring, intent, focused on mothering her children, a near clone of Mrs. Austin in the Austin books, serene and capable. And all wrong for Meg Murry.”

As with the line, “Daddy doesn’t like women who wear pants,” in The Moon By Night, Mrs. Austin in The Young Unicorns is happy enough to uphold the patriarchal status quo. As her daughter Suzy explains of how Mrs. Austin gave up a fledging music career to become a doctor’s wife, “Well, she’s just Mother. She decided she didn’t want to be something, didn’t she?” And it’s interesting that we see L’Engle seemingly unable to write a woman character who balances her creative passions (whether they be art or science) with marriage and family life, especially since she herself managed to do so. Although one could speculate how successful L’Engle actually felt she was in this balancing seeing as she wrote these idealized self-denying maternal figures over and over again.

“I think the closest we ever come in this naughty world to realizing unity in diversity is around a family table,” Canon Tallis comments after spending time with the Austin family, and questions of family, connection ,and disconnection recur throughout the text. For the first time, the Austin family themselves feel estranged from each other, and there are also questions of how they can possibly imagine themselves as an island of peace and calm in a world so dangerous and broken. In their own small town, it was easier to suppose it, but living in the city it becomes undeniable that all things are connected. “And it’s all about what Grandfather’s always saying, how we can’t love each other if we separate ourselves from anybody, anybody at all, and how anything that happens to anybody in the world really happens to everybody.”

February 13, 2019

Mini Reviews: Three Books on Family

The Last Romantics, by Tara Conklin: The summary on the jacket flap of Tara Conklin’s new novel The Last Romantics tells you that this is a story that begins in a yellow house, with a funeral, an iron poker…”a free and feral summer in a middle-class Connecticut town.” And while all this is true, it doesn’t begin to tell the reader what this book is about, a book that takes place over a century and actually begins in an auditorium in a dystopian future, a world wracked by climate chaos, where 102-year-old Fiona Skinner is asked to explain the story behind her most famous poem. And I’m amused by the challenge this novel must have created for marketers, who prefer novels to ones that can summed up in a sentence, and this one definitely isn’t one of those. A clue to what’s actually going on here lies in a blurb on the back by Meg Wolitzer, whose two most recent books have been similarly ambitious in their reach, not explicitly about anything either except the story itself, about the characters within and how time changes and complicates their connections. The story is the sweep, and so it is here, although it’s not always completely convincing as it is in Wolitzer’s more masterful work (though I will admit this is a high bar).

There are narrative strands in this novel that don’t go anywhere, and while one could argue that life itself is a bit like that, the reader gets the impression that this novel was once a more larger and more unruly manuscript and much got cut in the taming, and now there are several parts of the novel that don’t know what to do with themselves. There are also a few plot points that hinge on characters doing unfathomable things, which was annoying. But, most fundamentally: this novel was never not interesting, and I found it thoroughly engaging. The shifts between point of view (no small feat with a first-person narrator) was beautiful crafted, and provide moments of real illumination. The Last Romantics is a curious beast, and I can think of worse things for a novel to be.

*

Reproduction, by Ian Williams: This debut novel by award-winning poet Williams is another curious beast, but more deliberately so than with Conklin’s book. Williams brings a poet’s attention to form, always pushing at the novel’s limits, making it hold more, do more, be more—and it mostly absolutely works. Beyond form, this is always a family story like none I’ve ever read before—two people meet in a Toronto hospital room in the late 1970s and their mothers are dying. One is Felicia, a teenage girl from an unnamed Caribbean island, and the other is Edgar, adult son of a wealthy German immigrant family. One thing leads to another, and after a time they end up having a child together, though Edgar leaves the scene, and Felicia ends up raising her son, Armistice, in the basement apartment of a suburban Brampton side-split where Oliver lives, and we find them all next in the 1990s and Oliver’s two children have arrived for the summer from their home with his ex-wife, and one thing leads to another, and another child is born. Which all sounds more straightforward than it really is, because there are tricks with language, details, timelines and lineage. I loved the specificity of the story, it’s strangeness, but its utter plausibility, how it’s not a sensible story, but it makes perfect sense. This is another book that is never not interesting, but it’s also a demanding read—so when I finished Reproduction, I made a point of picking up a novel that was in a different gear. And this is my favourite thing about books, that there’s not just a single kind…

*

Her One Mistake, by Heidi Perks: The opposite of a book that’s unlike any I’ve ever read before is Her One Mistake. a psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator Gone Girlish vibeWhich certainly has been overdone in recent years, and has its pale imitators, but I thought Heidi Perks’ novel was really terrific—and reminiscent of the TV series Broadchurch, and not just because of the setting in Dorset, UK. This one starts when Charlotte agrees to take her friend Harriet’s young daughter, Alice, to a school fair, but then Alice goes missing, and Charlotte’s negligence is seemingly to blame. But as always, the real story is more complicated, and there are twists and turns to find out what really happened to Alice. My only criticism would be that Harriet’s husband is way too absolutely evil to be a realistic human character, but then a) if I’ve learned anything in recent years it’s that some men’s capacity for abusiveness is beyond my wildest imaginings and b) none of the novel’s twists hang on the possibility of his character being anything than what he is, so there’s nothing cheap happening here. I really loved this book, and its ending was gripping and explosive and had me shouting at the page.

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