September 26, 2016
I have tremendous admiration for author/illustrator Danielle Daniel, whose picture book, Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox, was one of the best picture books I encountered last year, a finalist for the First Nations Community Reads Awards, and which has recently been nominated for the prestigious Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award. And so when I learned she’d written a memoir, I know I wanted to read it.
The Dependent is a memoir about her remarkable marriage, a relationship that begins when a headstrong Women’s Studies major meets a handsome guy in the Canadian army, and they embark upon an adventure together that requires plenty of compromise on her part. Daniel doesn’t fit the traditional mould of an army wife, and is continually frustrated by the army’s demands upon her family and also her husband’s willingness to do as the army required in order to further his career. She writes with brutal honesty about her anger and also about her experiences with depression, which begin in this memoir after she experiences a miscarriage. She also alludes to a troubled family background that colours her experience of the present and makes her a jealous and mistrustful partner. Her husband Steve, however, does not have a lot of sympathy for his wife’s point of view—like a good soldier, he doesn’t delve into complicated emotions and focuses on his mission, one thing after another. He is frustrated that his wife does not seem to have ability to work through her unhappiness.
9/11 changes the stakes for members of the military serving around the world, and so too for Danielle does the birth of her son—although Steve leaves home for three months just weeks after the birth. She is relieved when Steve finally receives a position in Canada that keeps him from having to serve overseas, but what she thinks is to be their happy ending turns into another kind of story when Steve is injured in a parachute jump and is left a paraplegic. Suddenly Danielle is no longer married to the army—and in fact the support offered to their family is almost laughable inadequate—but her husband’s disability is something new and just as complicated to navigate. What makes the book so interesting is that Steve rebounds from his injury the same way he does from everything, and the dynamics of their marriage remain unchanged: Steve goes back to school, begins to train as an athlete training for the Paralympics, and becomes a local celebrity. Meanwhile Danielle is lost is the same shadows that had been following her for years, not to mention her husband is altogether dependent on her in so many ways, and she doesn’t know who she is beyond his wife. She is angry with Steve and with the army from what it stole from them, and tired of years of compromise, and Steve is understandably upset that she is wallowing in her pain all the while he’s the one who’s been injured. He doesn’t understand that she’s been a victim too.
Years of simmering tensions come to ahead eventually, and getting to this point makes for a fascinating read. I was impressed how surprising the dynamics were between Steve and Danielle, complicated by the fact that they’re two actually human beings with all the baggage and complexities inherent. While some of the dialogue between them seemed awkward and stilted, containing the same kinds of arguments over and over (which is a marriage problem as well as a narrative one), that would be my one criticism of The Dependent. What blew me away about it, however, was its structure, Daniel’s remarkable deftness with chronology, which makes me think of her art, collage, layers and textures. The Dependent is not told in chronological order, but instead weaves in and out of time (because the idea of time as a line is a point the narrative itself serves to refute. We carry all this stuff with us). The playing with time and story, the giving and withholding of detail, is stunningly accomplished, which is only underlined by the book’s incredible, miraculous and beautiful ending, which is also its beginning, a fantastic, complicated and beautiful love story, and isn’t that always the way…
September 21, 2016
Heroes of the Frontier, by Dave Eggers: I stopped reading Dave Eggers at some point (after What is the What, I think, which I loved, although I am not sure I still would…) and I’m thinking that was probably the right idea. I bought his latest novel because I’d heard intriguing things about it, and while I’m glad I read it and liked lots of things about it—there are good bits and he writes children so brilliantly, in particular the younger child who reminded me of my own feral creature who also likes to scream disrespectful things at inanimate objects—but it was too long and rudderless. Actually reminded me a bit of Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, which I loved years ago, and also the movie, Away We Go, which Vida and Eggers wrote together. The ending was so good, so I closed the book satisfied, and there were plenty of points throughout where I gasped or laughed, but I was put off my the narrative’s rudderlessness. Why are we floundering, I kept wondering. Which is perhaps a point about nationhood and existentially as well, but for a near-400-page book gets a bit annoying. Thinking about A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius with its footnotes and that novel he wrote after (in my copy the text started on the cover and ran right through to the back cover) and his tendency to have the narrative swell to fill all available space, literally and otherwise, and I am not sure that it’s an altogether good thing. But Dave Eggers gotta be Dave Eggers. I don’t know. He’s interesting. But also not—although he is always more interesting than any arguments disparaging his work and character. There is nothing more boring than hating Dave Eggers. I do think the novel is worth picking up for the depiction of its children, which is remarkable. Not everybody will be able to get through it though….
A Great Reckoning, by Louise Penny: I do think that Chief Inspector Gamache has been feeling a bit aimless since his retirement in How the Light Gets In about three years back. But in her latest novel, Penny gives him a task and a half: he’s charged with leading the police academy and rooting out its forces of corruption. It’s a novel that has resonance and relevance in light of constant stories about police brutality and #BlackLivesMatter, and it also returns us to Three Pines (don’t worry—Gamache and his wife still have their home there, although they also have a small apartment at the academy) where residents have found a mysterious map hidden on a wall, a map on which Three Pines appears and perhaps the last one upon which it ever did. What does the map symbolized? And yes, who is behind the murder that takes place at the Police Academy soon after Gamache’s arrival, a murder in which he is a suspect? The answers to both questions become intertwined, and connected to a long-ago tragedy from the Chief Inspector’s past which becomes clear at the novel’s devastatingly lovely conclusion.
Don’t I Know You, by Marni Jackson: I have this idea that my mother spent the years before I came into the world singing “Hey Jude” in downtown pubs in grand singalongs and running around Europe with an accordion playing “Those Were the Days, My Friends”, by Mary Hopkin. By virtue of my parents being baby boomers, I was born nostalgic for a world I never knew—I remember listening to “Carey” by Joni Mitchell when I was fifteen and anticipating a time when I’d have gotten used to clean white linens instead of scrambling down in the street. To be honest, things never worked out so well for me textile wise, but these all remain my cultural touchstones, never mind they happened long before my time. I’ve always wanted to go down to the Mermaid Cafe, which is a huge part of the appeal of Marni Jackson’s fiction debut, whose unique premise is that each story in this linked collection hinges on a fictional encounter with a celebrity, celebrity itself being a kind of fiction—the Brangelina breakup notwithstanding because that shit is real. Anyway, the premise is neat but not the point and eventually becomes secondary to the stories themselves, which are beautifully crafted, full of surprising turns of phrase and plot, and take us through the life of Rose McEwan from age 17 (when she enrols in a writing workshop taught by John Updike) to 67 (when she embarks on a canoe trip accompanied by Leonard Cohen, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Taylor Swift). In between, Van Morrison drives a TTC bus into the mystic, Adam Drive shovels her snow, Gwyneth Paltrow gives her a facial, and Joni Mitchell gives her the lowdown on the perils of free love. This is one book you can certainly call an original, and it’s one that has been staying on my mind.
September 13, 2016
I’d been reading Theresa Kishkan’s novella for a while, the first release from her imprint, Fish Gotta Swim Editions, whose books are designed by the talented Anik See (and oh, this little book is so lovely). And I thought I’d found an error. The book takes place in 1974, and there is a reference to the protagonist being born in 1915, and I thought, “No, wait.” A typo, I figured. She’d been born in 1945. And I still don’t know why I was so insistent on the error, that Kishkan’s character could not have possibly been 59 years old, except for the fact that I rarely encounter a woman in fiction who is 59 years old. And if I do, she is peripheral, or her identity is wrapped up in being somebody’s wife or mother.
Of course, I’ve met old women in literature, characters at the end of their lives, unravelling—Hagar Shipley. And there is no shortage of women in their twenties, thirties, forties, but there seems a paucity of women characters in their fifties. In general, I mean, and perhaps these books are out there and I’m just not reading them. But I’m not reading them, which is why the idea of a 59 year old woman still exploring, growing and transforming seemed remarkable to me. And then it became not remarkable at all, and I became aware that what was remarkable was this literary gap.
Winter Wren is the story of a woman, an artist, who returns from decades in Paris and the end of a love affair to Canada after the death of her mother, and makes a place for herself in an isolated cabin on Vancouver Island. She becomes preoccupied by the view from her window, and with the man who’d lived in her home before she bought it and who she visits in a home for seniors. He too is preoccupied by the view, and wishes she’d paint it for him.
Bring me the view at dusk.
Kishkan’s protagonist, Grace, is a character in one of her earlier novels, The Age of Water Lilies—Kishkan writes intriguingly of her novella’s genesis here. This book is a beautiful meditation of transformation and of place, and the line I loved best was, “Every morning I awake and am filled with a kind of quiet joy to realize where I am.”
August 30, 2016
In my friend Mark Sampson’s review of Paul Bowering’s last novel, the award-winning The Stranger’s Gallery in The Fiddlehead, he wrote, “Bowdring’s prose bursts with such clarity and assuredness that you trust his voice to take you anywhere it wants…” I know this because this excerpt from Mark’s review appears inside the ARC for Bowering’s latest novel, Mister Nightingale, and when I read that line, I thought, “Exactly.” Because while the notion of Bowdring’s novel as a “novelist’s novel” appeals to me—I love his send-up of literary culture, of small press politics, of comradeship and competition between writers, and all of that insider baseball—Mister Nightingale isn’t the kind of book I can manage to get through. And not just because it’s written by a man (she writes, unabashedly wearing her bias on her sleeve), because it’s about a man whose own literary bedrock is so definitively male. It’s all Kafka and his frozen heart, and James Joyce, and Proust, and all those people I’ve never read and never will because so many other people read them already that I don’t have to. Because I don’t trust any writer who doesn’t have a single literary foremother, or at least ten of them, and Bowdring’s James Nightingale never references one.
And yet, there was something about the narrative. While in most books, the lack of foremothers would be off-putting, I was willing to forgive it of Mister Nightingale. Because of what Mark wrote about the clarity and assuredness of Bowdring’s prose that I trusted enough to follow. Because (and I am not kidding, this is usually a deal breaker for me): in the entire book, there is not a single blowjob (and this is another reason why I tend to avoid books by men. Ubiquitous blowjobs. They go on for paragraphs and paragraphs. It’s really quite unbearable). And because there was this strange and uncanny echo in the novel of Carol Shields’ Unless, and I’m not saying this was anymore than me making weird connections, but they were vivid ones. James Nightingale, like Reta Winters, a semi-successful novelist, belying the ordinary lives and concerns behind the writer’s persona. James’ estranged wife is called Alicia, who plays viola in an orchestra, although in Reta Winters’ fictional novel, her heroine Alicia is engaged to a man who plays trombone in an orchestra, and so the lines aren’t exactly parallel, but still, one reminds me of the other. Mister Nightingale raises the question of unlived lives, as does Unless and also Shields’ The Stone Diaries, James considering the experiences of his neighbour who discovers her freedom and possibilities when her husband dies and her children are grown, and he also considers his own lives, the ones he might have lived, had he made other choices. Both characters also deal with the demands of elderly parents, and the peculiar, tangled nature of relationships with daughters on the cusp of womanhood. In many ways, these books are spiritual siblings. I think they’d get along.
Mister Nightingale begins with James’ return to his native Newfoundland after 30 years away. He’s even missed his own mother’s funeral, but now they’re offering him an honorary degree, and a local press is reissuing his first book. Plus his marriage has ended in Toronto and he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next, so it seems like a good time to return to the scene of the crime. The crime being the small press publisher ripping off James’ friend, the poet, Kevin, who didn’t get paid for sales of his book and who was furious to discover his poetry published in a high school English text and he hadn’t been paid for that either. So naturally, things are going to get more than a bit interesting at James’ book launch (although the date for that event is being postponed over and over again, in absolutely true small press fashion).
But in the meantime, James takes stock of his life, tries to reconnect with his father, encounters ghosts from his past, learns all the ways that Newfoundland has changed and stayed the same in the last three decades, and keeps some tabs on his daughter, who has just started university in St. John’s. He becomes reacquainted with his sister, gets a Newfoundland driver’s licence, partakes in an ill-attended book signing at the local Chapters, and gets drunk on local TV.
All of which is to say that the novel is not terrible plot-driven, but we go there anyway, with pleasure even, for all the reasons recounted above. Mister Nightingale is a smart, funny and absorbing book, and I’m so glad I went along on its journey.
August 23, 2016
While Zoe Whittall has made a career of writing about misfits and outlaws (which is part of the title of an anthology she edited in the early 2000’s), she turns the tables in her latest novel by writing about a family of unremarkable (were it not for their resolute upstandingness) middle class people who suddenly become misfits and outlaws in their very own lives. The book is The Best Kind of People, which I read on my summer vacation and handed directly to my husband when he asked me what book he should read next. And the family is the Woodburys, the patriarch of whom shocks his wife and children and entire community when he’s accused of sexual assaulting girls at the high school where he teaches.
“How could a person do such a thing?” is the kind of question that tends to be raised after the fact, although Whittall is more interested in another question with wider ramifications, which is, “How can the people around that person, the people who love that person, who did it make sense of their lives and the world once he has?” Joan Woodbury tries to make sense of her past and her future—what was her marriage all of these years, and who is she going to become outside of the relationship that has so long defined her? She deals with threats and violence against her home and family, hears the whispers and the rumours, and knows that many people implicate her along with her husband, because as his wife, how could she not have known?
Her daughter carries many of the same burdens with her at school, and is forced to reconcile her own burgeoning sexuality with her father’s egregious crimes, not to mention falls in with a group of Men’s Rights Activists who try to use her and her father as a pawn for their cause. And when the Woodbury’s son returns home from his life in New York to take care of his family and support his father, he’s forced to confront his own difficult past as a gay boy coming of age in a small conservative town.
Similar to Joan Thomas’s novel, The Opening Sky, The Best Kind of People ponders how the politics and morality of well-meaning, liberal-minded people are tested when they find themselves in situations they never expected. In Whittall’s book, the result is a complicated range of emotions and reactions, and while she puts her characters through test after test, the result every time in believable, entirely (and sometimes unbearably) human. There is so much nuance here, but the book is also devourable, utterly gripping, unfolding with the pace of a thriller and also that hard to put down, as the case unfolds day by day and then week by week, right up until the trial.
While the entire book is fantastic, Whittall gets full points for her spectacular ending, however, which turns the story inside out and disturbingly rips us away from the singular perspectives of characters to reflect the wider culture of rape and sexual violence against whose context the entire novel has been taking place. Which is to say that this is not just a story about a family.
And then the final sentence, which will haunt you long after you’ve finally finished reading, quiet, subtle, devastating and terrible, just like the injustice that is Justice, which isn’t anything like justice at all.
July 26, 2016
I loved Alice Zorn’s Five Roses, a novel that’s a love letter to Montreal, its neighbourhoods, and to the magic and serendipity of city life that is inevitably born from the fact of so many characters living in close proximity. It’s a bit of a mess, it is, city life, what with different cultures, and types of people, and old traditions and new traditions, and money and poverty, home and commercial enterprise, and history and the moment, which is now, and impossible to capture anyway…because the only thing that ever stands still in the city is the force of change. Zorn’s novel, however, manages to convey all this and not be a mess, disparate narratives woven together in a way that sparks magic but is left just untidy enough to still ring true.
To still be authentic. This is the kind of thing that matters not only in a novel, but also in the city, and when Fara and her husband embark to buy their first home, authenticity is what they’re seeking. Something real and solid, not a poorly constructed condo where walls are thin and the rain gets in. Unfortunately, the kind of thing they have in mind lies far outside their price range…except for a house in the Pointe St.-Charles neighbourhood of Montreal. It’s a working class neighbourhood, although most of the industry is gone. The signs are still there though, quite literally in the case of the iconic Farine Five Roses sign, from where Zorn’s novel gets its name. The first time Fara walks through the neighbourhood, she hears the sound of old men playing horseshoes, not a sound one hears very often anymore. The houses in Pointe St. Charles are only just starting to be unaffordable, the neighbourhood becoming gentrified. The biker gangs are history. Many of the houses still have their original features, woodwork, which is another way of saying that the people who live there have never had the privilege of moving up in the world, even via renovation. There is poverty, local residents being classed out of their neighbourhood by newcomers like Fara and her husband…although the only reason they were able to afford the house they got is because the son of the previous resident committed suicide. A story like that is bound to bring down the value.
Five Roses is very much about real estate, about owning a house, which is also to say that it’s about making a home. Fara herself is not put off by her new home’s unsavoury history, or at least she imagines she won’t be. She doesn’t find suicide shocking, her sister having killed herself years before. But it turns out that her new home awakens fears and anxieties Fara had thought she would have put away by now. She cannot help but feel the uncanny presence of something in her house…although that presence will prove less otherworldly than she’s imagining. Her next-door neighbour, Maddy, could have filled her in, because she’s seen who’s been watching the place from her view on her back patio. But she keeps her mouth shut. Maddy, who’s lived in her home in Pointe-St Charles ever since the place was a hippie commune, and she’s got her own sad story about the baby she lost decades ago. Which brings us to the final point of this trinity, Rose, a strange young woman adjusting to the city after an isolated childhood in a cabin with her mother in a small town up north. Rose works in the same hospital as Fara, and her roommate is a work colleague of Maddy at a bakery at the Atwater Market, just across the river from Pointe St. Charles (and oh, the food references in this novel are wonderful and hunger-inducing). Which are the kind of connections that happen in a city, how one life brushes up against another. The subtle, often known and yet profound ways in which we touch each other and change each other’s lives. It is in the nature of the city that story happens—and a testament to Zorn’s talent that in her book she makes it all seem to happen so naturally.
The stories don’t all intersect in the ways one might expect, which makes this character-driven novel more gripping than you might think of about a book without a whole lot of plot. Both Maddy and Fara begin come to terms with their painful histories, and begin to settle the ghosts in their respective homes—both literally and figuratively. And the younger Rose begins the process of making her own place in the city, finding a place to make art in a converted industrial building, and falling in love for the first time with a man who squats in an abandon factory who is perhaps even more of a misfit than she is. It’s not perfect, but it’s all possible, possibility being the most valuable thing that a city can offer.
Well, that, of course, and also the wonders of a terrific baguette.
July 21, 2016
Joan Haggerty’s The Dancehall Years is a perfect summer book, rich and sweeping, the kind of book you’d like to give a week to, on a dock perhaps, or a comfortable deck chair beside the water. It begins in 1939 on Bowen Island, which is home to a fancy hotel whose custom comes courtesy of the steamship lines, and whose grounds are meticulously maintained by Shinsuke Yoshito, the Japanese gardener. His son is Takumi, the lifeguard, who is romantically involved with Isabelle, the youngest Gallagher daughter, much to the consternation of her father. The Gallaghers have a summer rental on Bowen Island, and make use of the hotel facilities, the dancehall. All this action observed by Isabelle’s niece, Gwen, who is the novel’s heart, six years old when the novel opens, her point of view gloriously unfiltered.
Of course, everything is going to change. The summer of 1939 would be the last one before the outbreak of war in Europe, everything changing even further after the Pearl Harbour attack in 1941. Japanese-Canadians along the coast would be taken to internment camps, their properties confiscated by authorities. Not to mention the end of the steamship lines, and cultural changes that would make Bowen Island a very different place by the time the 1960s roll around, when Gwen is a young mother, having left an unhappy marriage and trying to make a life for herself and her two daughters, all the while trying to reconcile unanswered questions from her family’s history.
Like, where did the Yoshitos go? What happened to Takumi? Not to mention Isabelle, once Gwen’s gay young aunt who is now semi-estranged from the family, taking care of her husband who’d come back damaged from the war. There had been a child, we know, although Gwen doesn’t, and was she given up for adoption, or did she die, as Isabelle had been told she did, a heartache she carries with her down through the decades. There are also questions about Gwen’s parents own marriage, her mother’s unhappiness, the question of her family’s inheritance and where it came from, and what do we do with all this history, this stuff we carry down with us, this freight.
Joan Haggerty is an extraordinary writer, her prose Woolfian in its stream of consciousness, its immediacy. This is a saga sweeping four decades written in the present tense. And it’s true that when we talk about summer books, we sometimes mean that they’re a bit light in substance, but this is a different kind of summer book. It’s not difficult, and it’s got its own kind of lightness (strung together by summers as it is), but it’s not a “beach read.” Which isn’t to say it would be wonderful to read it at a beach, but still, it’s not the kind of novel that would blow away in the breeze.
And it’s so good. Two decades in the making. Haggerty is in her seventies, and her last book was The Invitation in 1994, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award. The Dancehall Years is published by the small but mighty Mother Tongue Publishing, based on Salt Spring Island, BC, and I’m disappointed it’s not available in-store at large Canadian book retailers because it would make a perfect addition to a summer books display—that cover is so perfect. But fear not, determined reader, for you can track this fine novel down, via an online bookseller or direct from the publisher.
And I really do urge to you to do so, for your own sake. For perfect summer book reasons.
Prepare to be swept away.
July 19, 2016
The above colouring sheet has been staring at me from the fridge for the last month or so, as I absently read its words while washing the dishes. I actually coloured it yesterday, just to prove its point, I think. That indeed, we have all the time we need. Which has been my mantra as I’ve sailed through the summer so far, a season which is somehow both endless and fleeting. The children home from school and the days are long. But my hours to myself for my work are far fewer, and I’ve once again decided to embark on a marathon sprint toward completing a draft of a new novel. There are not enough hours to read in. And not enough weekends either, for ferry rides to the island, and road trips, and camping trips, and sunny afternoons lying under trees in the park. And isn’t parenthood and life entire a little bit like this summer paradox? Isn’t everything? Endless and fleeting, so much, and also never enough,
You have all the time you need.
Which is true. And it’s also true that you need all the time you have. And also that, admittedly, you only have the time you have, so time is precious. But it’s also everywhere. I remember Carol Shields wrote something like this somewhere: “Tempus doesn’t fugit.” Which is a difficult line to ponder considering that Shields died far too soon from cancer, but I’m not sure that fact changes anything at all.
The colouring sheet is by Teva Harrison, whose Joyful Living Colouring Book is forthcoming from House of Anansi in November. She is also the author of In Between Days, a graphic novel published this spring. I read it at the beginning of May, and have wanted to write about it here, but wasn’t sure how to. I’ve followed Harrison on Twitter for years, and in the hundreds and thousands of people I’ve encountered there, she’s always made an impression. I’ve been inspired by her sense of wonder at the universe, and by the deep love she shares with her husband, and by the richness of her everyday life. It’s the kind of thing I turn to the internet for. Which made the news that she’d been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer all the more incongruous when I read about it one winter day in the newspaper in late 2014.
While Harrison writes about the depression she suffered from in the wake of her diagnosis, by the time I learned of it, she’d actually just climbed a mountain. Which is kind of a metaphor for her experience, and in the year and a bit since then she hasn’t stopped climbing and going. She’s created two books; been overwhelmingly generous with her experiences in both of these and also on social media; she’s gone to great lengths to bring attention to metastatic breast cancer and to educate people about this disease, its incurability, and what it’s like to live with cancer. She’s also given talks and addresses about her story, one of them I listened to online last December. It was there that I first heard the line, “You have all the time you need.”
She spoke about her changing relationship with time since being diagnosed with cancer—about the endlessness of hours spent watching TV in her depression, about art and all of the things that she’d never made time for before she got sick, about the busy-ness of her professional life pre-diagnosis, and about how she intends to spend the time she has left (which she has ever intention of being years and years). That kaleidoscopic nature of time, fleeting and endless. You have all the time you need. To fill, of course, not to wait for—this is key. All the time you need is right now. (And even if you don’t have all the time you need, that proverbial bus in the street coming to mind, doesn’t it make the most sense to live like you do?)
While I value Harrison’s work so much for her willingness to share what it is to live with cancer—how this broadens our understanding of the human experience and helps us be better friends to other people who live with disease—cancer is only part of what her story is. As her memoir shows, her life has always been a little bit remarkable, from her childhood growing up in Oregon with hippie parents, to the incredible story of how she met her husband while stuck in Toronto after 9/11. Remarkableness seems to be a genetic trait, she shows us, as she traces the stories of the women in her family, “what everyone has done to find peace and a place in this world.” She writes about her aunts, her niece, about her socialist lawyer great-grandfather, about her grandmother who was a Stanford economist. Whose legacy is so much more than cancer and reminds Harrison that she herself is “so much more than my cancer too.”
She writes about the facts of life with cancer, the surreal bits and the terrible ones. About the practical facts of early menopause, brought on by her treatment. She writes about the hope implicit in living with disease, and about fears, anxiety, silver linings and wishes. About “the excruciating act of scaling back [her] dreams.” She writes about her husband: “I hold onto him for dear life, both of which are all I ever wanted, anyhow.”
“When I was a kid, summer stretched out forever,” she writes in “The Mermaid Pool.” “Two months away from school felt like an eternity. Absolutely anything could happen.” She used to swim and swim, and had a dream of staying overnight in the pool (which was actually an oversized horse trough), convinced that she could be a mermaid by morning. And her dream would actually come true, she tells us, albeit not by her original method, but instead, she and a friend would walk in the famous Coney Island Mermaid Parade, which was not quite as glamorous as it sounds but still, “it was something else, floating down that Coney Island street, nothing but a pretty, pretty mermaid for a few hours.
“Dreams come true, if we’ll only make them.”
Yes, and we have all the time we need.
July 10, 2016
While my career in the service industry wasn’t so long, it was longer than it should have been. I worked at McDonalds throughout high school, regularly screwing up my orders, serving Bacon and Egg McMuffins to people who didn’t eat pork, and finally receiving an Employee of the Month award after three years because everyone felt bad for me that it had been so long. I used to hide in the walk-in fridge and scarf down McNuggets and contraband filet-o-fish. I don’t know why I thought that waitressing would be any better than that, but it really wasn’t. At that job, I used to hide in a closet and eat beer-nuts. My career highlight was the night I received a bill and under TIP the customer had written, “No Way!” After that summer I got a job in a library, and never had to carry another tray ever again.
I kind of loved it though. I was a terrible waitress, but I loved the atmosphere. There was a guy who played guitar on our patio, and I used to play songs in between his sets. One night I was tasked with serving a Z-list (ridiculous) Canadian rock band and their lead singer was dressed head-to-toe in leather even though it was 35 degrees. The other girls I worked with were ridiculously fun, and we used to go out after our bar had closed to come home at 4 in the morning. And between them and the customers, there were so many people, so many stories, conversations that verged in hysteria even if some of them were only in the recounting. Even when things were boring, we were all thoroughly entertained.
Nathan Whitlock’s second novel, Congratulations on Everything, taps into that spirit, and also the soundtrack, which essentially includes Kim Mitchell’s “Go For a Soda.” The scene is The Ice Shack, a local bar in a strip mall with a patio overlooking a ravine—and that its proprietor, Jeremy, is out hacking away at the shrubbery with a machete early in the novel is a suggestion that things at this feel-good local joint (where everybody knows your name) are going to take a violent turn for the worse. In fact we’re told as much, that this novel will be the story of Jeremy’s downfall, and of the Ice Shack’s too. This is the story of a downward spiral.
Jeremy is a good guy with good intentions, and he tries to do the right thing. He tries to play the game. The point of the book though is that the game is rigged and the stakes for business owners are high and terrible. Things aren’t always so bad—the bar is doing okay, Jeremy’s got a solid staff, and the place is something he’s proud of. He’s close to the edge though, and in order to sustain the business, he’s got to get investors on board, and these turn out to be his parents. But then his brother-in-law comes into money, and Jeremy figures he might be interested in supporting his venture. Which is where things get a little slippery, and it’s at this point when he makes a tactical error and sleeps with his waitress, Charlene, who has her own complicated story of an unhappy marriage and general dissatisfaction. And things are only going to go from worse to worse.
As with any establishment, it’s the characters who make Congratulations on Everything a place worth visiting. Whitlock makes Jeremy and Charlene sympathetic even when they’re at their worst, and their stories are supported by a chorus of memorable and hilarious co-workers, customers, and family members. This is a smart, funny, and thoroughly entertaining read. What Whitlock and Jeremy both seem to recognize is that the point of a bar is that it’s a place in which make things happen, and where poor Jeremy fails at his enterprise, his author succeeds with aplomb.
July 5, 2016
Being white, I have the luxury of not having to think about race very often, and so when I first heard about Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam, what occurred to me was not that this was a brown skinned person writing about white people, but that this was a man who was bothering to write about women. I mean, I know women who are nervous to write about women out of fear of what men might think of them, so it was this that seemed like a tremendous risk to me. But it wasn’t just the novelty—the very first time I read Rumaan Alam at all was in his article in Elle, “Raising Two Boys As Feminists Without a Mother.” Which made clear to me that I wanted to read more of what he’d written, and about women in particular because of the singularity of his viewpoint and its insight. Although Rich and Pretty is the kind of book I’d want to read no matter who had written it, being as fond as I am of well written novels about people making lives in New York during those pivotal moments when futures are still laid out before them.
It’s Elena Ferrante but light, a novel about female friendship that, just as Ferrante does, acknowledges the spectrum between love and hate that embodies a decades-long relationship between two women. It’s a novel that puts marriage on the sidelines and make friendship its love story, and like any love story, things are complicated. The book begins with Sarah, the rich friend, announcing her engagement, to Dan, who Lauren (“pretty”) thinks is boring, just one of the many things unspoken between them. Sarah, who’s always initiating the get-togethers with Lauren, even though she’s the one who’s so busy. The two friends about thirty, settling into their lives after growing up together, high school and university. Sarah’s career aspirations are vague, but she doesn’t need to bother with that end of things so much, and now she’s getting married. She wishes similar things for her friend, who seems much less interested in being “matched” than Sarah thinks she should be. At one point their lives were very much the same (even with the rich and pretty distinctions) but at some inevitable point their paths diverged, and how does a friendship (a relationship that’s meant to be as peripheral to life itself as it is to the literary canon) navigate the journey of a lifetime? In particular those turbulent, essential years between 20 and 40 when when seems to live at least six lifetimes in a decade or two.
I really loved this book. I loved its humour, its prose, its quietness and detail. I loved its subtle subversions—second abortions and pregnant women with a drink. I loved the difference between the two characters’ voices, how richly the two were delineated, and that the title is tongue-in-cheek—in a Mad Men fashion, Alam’s novel takes the idea of “types” of women and a binary approach to womanhood and complicates the idea entirely to show that women can be whole, flawed, inexplicable and fully realized people whose lives and experiences are worth writing about, thinking about. Which really shouldn’t be such a revelation, and this is still a completely excellent book for those of us who already know.