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April 7, 2021

The Relatives, by Camilla Gibb

I loved Camilla Gibb’s new novel, The Relatives, a slim book that reads up fast, but is also not remotely slight. It’s a single volume comprising stories of three different people who don’t know each other—Lila, an alcoholic social worker yearning for a child; Tess, sharing custody of a child after her breakup and disturbed by her ex’s plans regarding their frozen embryos; and then Adam, the American man who’s being held hostage in Somalia. Each of these stories worthy of a novel of its own, and the connections between them are subtle, but important, and the whole arrangement fits together so well, kind of seamlessly, which is a remarkable achievement.

And the seamlessness is the result of the plot and the pacing here, which never stops, and makes this easily a novel you could read in a day. Everything has gone wrong for Lila, who tells her story in first person. She has put her job on the line, overstepping bounds as she brings a young girl into her care who’d been found wandering in Toronto’s High Park and does not speak a word. Lila herself is adopted, never knew the woman who gave her to her, and her own mother has just died, reawakening old wounds but also suggesting new possibilities, and it’s clear that none of this is going to end well, as she tries to fill the hole in her world with the girl.

Adam, in third person, is just as cut off from meaningful ties, even before he’s taken hostage. He’s working for the State Department in Somalia at a refugee camp, undercover, as he investigates rumours of infiltration by militant recruiters…but maybe they’re on to him, and now he’s stuck in a hole, his body brutalized, and the worst of the torture is still before him.

Things are a little less dire for Tess (also first person), an academic who studies isolated islands and other isolated communities, though her personal life is in shambles, something of an island herself. Her ex’s one last chance at motherhood would be by implanting one of Tess’s embryos, but this is a lot of ask of anyone, and especially fraught for someone as prickly as Tess—is it even possible to navigate this situation with any grace?

These stories snowball, compelled by a sense of inevitability, though the specifics still aren’t clear, and this is the seamlessness I’d talking about, how one thing leads to another, and how our lives rub up against those of others, even against our will, and what it is to be related, to have a family, how we write our own stories onto those that belong to other people. Rich and absorbing,The Relatives is about the impossibility of islands, because connection is what humans do, for better or for worse, by accident and on purpose.

March 29, 2021

Summerwater, by Sarah Moss

Dread lurks in Sarah Moss’s Summerwater from the opening pages, from the book’s description on the inside cover, in fact. From the cover itself, which dark and foreboding, and this is such a pandemic novel, though not explicitly. The reference on Page 6 though: “There won’t be a plane this summer, or next. Who could afford to travel now.”—just a little uncanny. It’s a very contemporary novel in its immediacy, in the vein of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, but less overtly. There’s a Brexit backdrop though, and it matters a lot, questions of us and them, who belongs and who doesn’t. Set in Scotland, which complicates things even more, at a holiday resort with a handful of cabins nearby a loch, and the weather is dreadful. There is nothing to do but stare out the windows at the unceasing drizzle and also then at the other holidaymakers, each of them mysteries to each other (and to themselves). The skinny mother who insists on going running every morning, the old man who is frustrated by his wife’s increasing infirmity, the young couple on the cusp of a lifetime together, the couple with the little girl and the baby, the grumpy teenagers and their embattled parents, everybody more than faintly annoyed at the people staying in the one cabin—are they Romanian? Ukrainian?—where loud music plays into the night.

Isolation, paranoia, mistrust and frustration colour the various narratives, everybody isolated, far away from WiFi and phone signals. Moving between various dwellers of the resort, each character’s perspective is absorbing and fascinating (and also very funny, moving, illuminating, cringe worthy, etc.) Offering clues that suggest something foreboding, though I never called it right, what actually happened, and it was terrible, but also very satisfying, in the way that devastating conclusions aren’t always—and surprising too, casting the rest of this story in a very different light. Not a spoiler because I am quoting from the cover copy again: “It is the longest day of the year, and as the hours pass imperceptibly, twelve people shift from being strangers, to bystanders, to allies…”

I love a short book, one that can read in a day (especially a day that is rainy). Summerwater is a short novel that will never be called “slight,” and it might be just the thing for a reader finding their pandemic brain is having trouble with focus. I really loved Moss’s previous book, The Ghost Wall, and this one is similar in scope, though also its own creation entirely, and very much recommended.

March 15, 2021

The Spaciousness of Uncertainty: Hope Matters, by Elin Kelsey

In this year of pandemic anniversary reflection, I have been thinking a lot about hope, which I think has been my own personal guiding force through this particular crisis, and has served me remarkably well. I just erased a sentence here about this being excusable since I am neither an elected official nor charged with responsibility for public health…but I actually think that hope should be a part of public policy. Not thoughts and prayers hope, but I can’t help thinking of last summer and how autumn could have been different if the public had received more concrete messaging about the ways their actions in the first wave had made a difference, if instead of the news media focussing on the inevitably of a second wave, they had expanded the narrative to include other possibilities. (“The ones who tell the story,” says Ali Smith, as I have quoted on this here website six hundred billion times, “make up the world.”)

All this thinking compelled me to pick up Elin Kelsey’s Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis and one thing I had not been expecting was that this would be the YOU’RE WRONG ABOUT… regarding the crisis of our dying earth:

“Whenever we straitjacket an idea or issue into a single monolithic story…we lose the nuance and specificity of context. We miss positive developments and shifts in perception. We are left with an oversimplification that is so generalized it becomes inherently inaccurate.”

Elin Kelsey

It’s not that the challenges facing the planet aren’t dire, but instead that the presentation of these challenges is creating another crisis of mental health, and further, it’s all enough to make many people respond by throwing up their arms and deciding there is no point in even trying, rendering doom a self-fulfilling prophecy. And a huge part of the problem is the way we get our news: never in all of human history has there been more opportunity hear directly and constantly about every single terrible or catastrophic incident happening somewhere on the earth. That part of the equation is as natural as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, actually—and possibly just as harmful to ourselves and to the planet.

And so Kelsey suggests shifting the focus, underlining that there is no shortage of hopeful stories on the environmental front either, of habitats that have rebounded after devastation, stories of incredible resilience and recovery, of animals that have been brought back from the brink of extinction. These stories, she tells her readers, are presented as one-offs, if they’re presented at all. And there will be others who will suggest that such stories will make people complacent, undermining the urgency of the crisis facing our climate and our environment—but Kelsey’s evidence suggests the opposite, than when people are empowered to believe that their actions have an impact, make a difference, then they will indeed be compelled to act. Hope is a powerful force, and Kelsey uses examples of the last twenty years—a shift away from single-use plastics, people consciously decided to eat less meat in their diets, a movement that saw millions of people all over the world taking to the streets in 2019—to show that already there is so much positive change to build upon, and reason and incentive to keep moving forward.

As Rebecca Solnit writes, “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and in the spaciousness of that uncertainty is room to act.” Elin Kelsey’s book inspires me to want to bother, and underlines that “wild and contagious” hope is not merely a privilege or indulgence, but instead is essential to help us both work through sadness and grief about what’s happening to our planet, and then continue to take necessary action for a better world.

March 8, 2021

Half Life, by Krista Foss

Half Life, by Krista Foss, is a tricky book. The first three words: “Knock on wood.” It’s a door, and somebody is banging upon it, waking Elin from her sleep in the mid-afternoon. My expectations confounded at every turn, but then isn’t it fascinating, to think of knock on wood in the context of a knock at the door? A reframing. Wood and construction essential to the project here, but also fact of the fist’s effect upon the door, the disturbance of atoms, and a set of events that will be put into play by whoever it is doing the pounding.

I read this novel over two evenings last week, and found it wholly absorbing, though not in a comfortable sense, as a book to get lost in. Instead, it’s a novel full of booby traps and diversions, it’s tricky, as I say. As you would expect from a novel about trauma and abuse, although this description makes the book seem more dour and less interesting than it really is. Perhaps what I can say is that Half Life doesn’t ever sit still long enough to be about any one thing, and instead it’s about everything—family, physics, furniture, money, houses, glassware, explosions, mythology, motherhood, and the pleasures of pipe smoking.

Elin Hendrikson is a high school physics teacher whose methods are being constantly critiqued by the new principal, she fears her 19-year-old daughter is nearly lost to her, and she’s subject to her mother’s wrath with her more-favoured siblings living out of town, out of reach. But the whole family is coming together again for a ceremony in which a gallery will be named after Elin’s late father, a semi-famous modernist furniture designer, a household name in households where people know about such things.

It’s going to come to a head—it’s inevitable. And it’s hard to look away as Elin cruises for a reckoning with her past, her present and her future, and decides to finally stand up for herself and assert her independence from her mother and overbearing siblings. But of course, she’s not the kind of character for whom this will ever be graceful (which is why I love her—a scattered, messy, impossibly and achingly human kind of woman) so there will be drama, and lots broken glass, and wounded flesh and feelings.

I loved this book. I confess that I definitely owe it a second reading to get a full(er) grasp on the project, which seems to vast and ambitious, a novel that becomes its own universe, it seems, fully formed, down to every single atom, absolutely Woolfian in its attention to detail and nuance and destabilization. I found it fascinating, just as rewarding as it was a challenge, and ultimately such a triumph.

March 4, 2021

Let Me Tell You What I Mean, by Joan Didion

For years, I kept a photocopied piece of paper pinned to a cork-board that hung on my wall, the following lines from Joan Didion’s essay “Telling Stories”: …it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.” And it’s strange now to think about piece of paper, because I don’t write like that I at all. I never learned that ease, or such strategy, and my reverence for this passage (and for Didion in general) has always been mostly aspirational. I never ended up writing anything at the desk that the cork-board hung over, eventually writing my books while lying on the coach instead, far too reclined to be deploying weapons.

“Telling Stories” is the only essay in Didion’s new collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, that I have read before—and I had to visit the sub-basement of an archive to find it, so if my experience is anything to go by, these pieces aren’t so widely known. Though my expectations for the book were pretty low—Joan Didion is 86, and hit the height of fame with her 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, a book that doesn’t really typify what Joan Didion’s work is all about. Written in the throes of grief as well, it would have surprised me if anything written and published afterwards could have been as sharp and pointed (“tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page”) as her previous work. I have appreciated every one of her releases since then, but there does seem to be a lack of urgency in all of it, they’re mainly obligatory, though always interesting. But of course, this is a writer who has been looking back on things since her early thirties, at least, who was born supposing that the best of everything was well behind her, so maybe it’s all just in keeping.

I read a review of this book (somewhere! Can’t remember where) that remarked upon the strangeness of the title, incongruous with Didion’s work, whose words were so strategically deployed that such explanations were usually unnecessary. Interestingly, the title itself does not come up in the book, and instead is (I assume) altered from the far more typically Didion-esque “Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind,” from her essay, “Why I Write.” Always a shower not a teller, in her introduction to her 1968 collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem, she writes about the advantages of being so physically unimposing as a figure that the people she’s writing about scarcely notice she’s there.

But in this collection, perhaps to satisfy readers seeking …Magical Thinking levels of disclosure, she’s more of a presence than I’d been anticipating, and the title does not seem so unfitting indeed. I get a sense of how a writer is formed and of her process, and not just simply her observational eye (which is eviscerating in her essay about Nancy Reagan, then First Lady of California). She’s also very prescient, in a 1968 essay about parental expectations that anticipates parenting fixations of the 20th century, or her 2000 piece on Martha Stewart, and branding, and the World Wide Web, and the expectations for women to succeed in a culture that is always going to hate them for having done so.

February 26, 2021

Wintering, by Katherine May

It’s funny you know, for some reason I was expecting a more literal guide to surviving winter with Katherine May’s Wintering, but she writes about having to wait years for snow to fall where she lives in the south of England. In order to get a handle on winter’s reality, she has to go on field trips. For her, wintering is a metaphor, an idea—one year, her husband becomes very ill, her own health is suffering, her son stops attending school due to anxiety. She and her family are forced to rest and retreat for a while, to observe a different kind of season, but one she feels she has a muscle for after a breakdown she’d experienced as a teenager. Sometimes the best thing is just to submit and acknowledge the season you are in, which is part of a cycle.

Wintering is a fascinating book about reconnecting with cycles, seasons, the rhythms of the natural world. Although it does feel curious to read this book here in Canada, written by a person from a country where people don’t tend to have parkas or even winter boots. May’s winter as metaphor doesn’t always translate here, where the season can go on so long, everything still and frozen, where we’re still digging out long after the vernal equinox. It’s hard to buy that this is a season as rich with life as all the others are. But I suppose that makes the book for me all the more purposeful.

May’s writing is bright and engaging. I kept reading bits aloud to whoever had the good fortune to be in my presence. It made me consider becoming a modern-day Druid, to be honest, and I loved the parts about winter swimming, though I could never dare such a thing.

If you read and enjoyed Wintering, I recommend you read Maria Mutch’s beautiful memoir Know the Night (I reviewed it for the National Post and am still really proud of what I wrote) nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 2014. Definitely the two works are gorgeously complementary.

February 19, 2021

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, by Cherie Jones

Do not let the beautiful cover fool you, or the setting in paradise: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, by Cherie Jones, is a brutal book, violent and disturbing, but there’s nothing gratuitous about the violence, and the storytelling is absolutely stunning.

It’s a story told in pieces about a group of people on a beach in Barbados, away from the pretty tourist snapshots. The night Lala gives birth to her daughter, her husband kills a white man in a botched robbery at one of those big houses on the beach, and so begins the story, but it also stretches back years and generations before it, with Lala’s mother and her grandmother Wilma, who’d been the one to warn Lala away from the caves on the beach “where bad man go when they die…men that are too bad to rest easy in their graves down in those tunnels harvesting souls for the Devil.” The sister in the story goes exploring anyway, because “what is the use of a tunnel if you don’t get to see where it lead?” And she narrowly escapes with her life, but she loses her arm, and Lala scoffs at that:

“Well I bet it not so bad having one arm,” says Lala. “She can still do things like everybody else, she can still get a husband and some children and a house.” / “Stupid girl,” says Wilma, “how she’s she going to sweep it?”

Sweeping a house is important when you live by a beach, for keeping up appearances, but it’s also a metaphor for the practical matters of day-to-day life, those things that provide safety and security, for taking care of oneself. And the women in this novel have all started out with disadvantages, as we discover as the story gets put together, piece-by-piece. What caused Wilma, her daughter Esme, and then Lala to be the way they are, the violence and trauma in their pasts which meant that they’ve never been able to count on anybody really, that their lives are tough and hardscrabble, and they’d take any avenue out of it, except that none of the avenues really tend to lead anywhere at all.

Take Lala, for instance, who ends up with Adan, who dotes on their baby, but beats her—he was her getaway from Wilma and her husband who’d preyed on Esme and driven her to her own sorry fate. And her connection to Adan’s friend Tone, which stretched back years, when she first discovered him working in the garden at the house her grandmother was cleaning, Tone suffering from something we don’t know what until the end of the book. Breadcrumbs, are what Jones offers her reader, clues and hints. The book is a mystery, but not in the conventional way, because we know who did it from the novel’s first pages. It was Adan in the big house with a handgun. But what happens next? And the way the rest of the story unfolds is tragic, mesmerizing, twisty and surprising, Jones managing a complex and nuanced treatment of even the most despicable characters (and her most sympathetic characters get to behave despicably).

There’s also the wife of the dead man in the big house, herself from the island and her husband had been her getaway, but now he’s been murdered and here she is, right back where she started. The police officer with the digestive issues who thinks he’s putting the pieces together, but the pieces are all wrong. The sex worker who’s fed up with the cop who’s been threatening to arrest her since she stopped sleeping with him. Tone, who’s been running his whole life and can’t catch a break, and it doesn’t look like his fate’s due to change anytime soon.

The ending of this book is devastating, but perfect. Literally uplifting, and I’d say spiritually as well, and it’s hardly heartwarming, but instead heartsoaring, propelled by the power of story, the magic of Cherie Jones’ characters and prose.

February 16, 2021

The Midnight Bargain, by C.L. Polk

I’m not especially fond of the Canada Reads debates. I find them frustrating and annoying, to be honest, though this is mostly because of my own sensibilities than anything else. I don’t really like yelling at the radio. Last year, Jael Richardson did a daily recap of the debates on Instagram Live and I preferred following the series this way to the show itself. What I do love, however, is a Canada Reads lineup like what they’ve come up with this year, a list of books that are off the beaten track, that I might not have picked up otherwise, and that don’t immediately seem to have much in common, which means the connections between them are fascinating (and this is why I am not especially fond of the Canada Reads debates—I love the idea of how the books are enriched by their relationships to each other rather than having to pit them as competitors).

It helps that I’ve already read three of the titles on the list—Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots; Butter Honey Pig Bread, by Francesca Ekwuyasi; and Two Trees Make a Forest, by Jessica J. Lee—and that I really loved them. And that I probably wouldn’t have read the final two titles otherwise, but not it seems kind of lazy not to read them all. Even if C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain seems so far from up my alley that it’s in a different universe altogether. “It’s fantasy meets a regency romance,” I told my husband. He said, “But you don’t really like either of those things.”

“Ahh,” I answered him. “The power of hybridity.”

If not for Canada Reads, I wouldn’t have read The Midnight Bargain, set in an otherworld that feels a but like 19th-century England, but with magic, and if colonialism had never happened. I will admit that the world-building felt arduous to me at times, which is often my problem with fantasy—so much to keep track of and understand, when I’d prefer to get lost in the plot. But it started to pay off when it meant that the plot would have kinds outcomes that I’d never encountered in a novel before, where characters motivations turned out to be so much more complex and fascinating than they could have been in a world that was familiar.

Beatrice is a sorceress and about to embark on her first bargaining season, where she will be paired off with a husband, especially important since her father’s business stumbles have landed their family in enormous debt. But here’s where it gets complicated—once paired off, Beatrice will be required to wear a collar to suppress her magic powers, supposedly because the risk of being pregnant and inhabited by spirits is just too great, and so women are not permitted to practice magic until their childbearing years are over. But really this is just an excuse to keep women from realizing their own power, which suits the patriarchy just fine. But Beatrice has a plan—she’s been practising magic in secret and is so close to becoming a full-fledged Magus. If she can complete her self-taught course before her bargaining season, can she convince her father to let her stay single and join him in running their family business, saving her family from financial ruin and keeping her freedom at once?

But when Beatrice meets Ianthe Lavan, things get more complicated. Turns out he’s everything she’s dreamed of and so wealthy that her family’s fortunes would be saved by their union–but is she willing to give up the most essential part of herself to fulfill societal expectations?

Is such a thing worth the promise of love?

Totally not my kind of thing at all, but that’s what I liked best about it. The Midnight Bargain was rich, absorbing and wonderful, totally transporting.

February 12, 2021

A Black Man’s Toronto

Something I have noticed with Black History Month this year is how Black History is all around, from plaques for Albert Jackson, Toronto’s first Black postman, who lived in my neighbourhood, and Olympian Sam Richardson, who attended the high school down the street, to the streetcar rolling by displaying photos of Black Canadians like Lincoln Alexander and Jean Augustine.

Last weekend after I learned that a nearby skating rink was named for Harry R. Gairey, a Black community leader, and he’d published a book, I was lucky to find a weathered library copy. An oral history, transcribed and edited by Donna Hill, mother of writer Lawrence, A Black Man’s Toronto was published by the Multicultural History Society of Ontario in 1981.

A few years ago, Kamal Al-Solaylee wrote a piece in Canadian Notes & Queries about the whiteness of nostalgia, our fondness for heritage photos that usually omit the multicultural histories of our cities. How easy it might be to suppose that Black people and Brown people haven’t always been part of the history of these places too.

And how our sense of the places we live is enriched by knowing all parts of the history. I know the streets and buildings Gairey writes about in his story, all the churches in Toronto, the school his son attended, the downtown neighbourhood he and his wife lived in before he moved out to Scarborough in the 1970s. The West Indian Club on College Street that burned down in 1968— I would never have known, but for this book. Walked by the place yesterday and felt its ghost.

Gairey was a union leader, became a civil rights activist, and a leader and supporter of Black and other immigrants to the city. He helped to challenge Canada’s racist immigration laws and brought forth Toronto’s first anti-discrimination laws after his son was prohibited from entering a skating rink.

His history is Toronto’s history and I am so glad to know it.

February 3, 2021

And This is the Cure, by Annette Lapointe

So you could pitch it like this: imagine every Miram Toews book you have ever read—A Complicated Kindness, Irma Voth, The Flying Troutmans, All My Puny Sorrows, Women Talking, Summer of My Amazing Luck, Swing Low, I mean everything—all packed together in a single volume. Which is only misleading, because it makes it sound derivative, which it isn’t. So how about this instead: former cult member turned riot grrrl writes a tell-all memoir and finds fame as house of a Canadian broadcasting culture flagship pop culture radio show after its former host (a noted sexual predator) flames out in disgrace, but then her past life comes back to haunt her when her ex-husband is murdered and her estranged 11 year-old daughter is returned to her care, which means she’s forced to confront her ex’s conservative, religious family and their disdain for her, all the while she’s trying to stay on her meds and keep as stable as possible as she avoids confronting the trauma buried in her past, which does not necessary lie where she thinks it does…and then her band goes on tour in Japan.

And This is the Cure is the third novel by Annette Lapointe, whose first book Stolen was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2006. I also really appreciated her second White Tail Shooting Gallery in 2013, writing in a blog post that the book, “baffled me throughout, disturbed and troubled me, but it also intrigued me, continually surprised me, never stopped me wondering what would happen next…” And the same stands for her latest, which I loved. A book that ostensibly should be too much—how can a person fit so many things into a single novel?—but which works, is eminently readable. Mostly because of Allison Winter, Lapointe’s stunning fictional creation, a woman who is shattered and still standing, flawed and perfect, terrified and brave, smart and ridiculous, loving and fierce, damaged and whole, missing and present. A singular creation: regarding her daughter as a baby, she says, “I’d happily have killed things for her, but I would have preferred her to stay at home, in someone else’s custody, while I did it… I’d have made a decent, if absent, father.”

She’s the trickiest narrator, withholding information about her story until the present drags it out of her. She’s also unapologetic with a ferocity that never wavers, and I love that. Her unreliability turns the novel into the most fascinating, many-sided shape, but her perspective is still a steady one, the compass point that guides the reader through so much stuff. A lesser writer would have had this whole book come off its rails, but Lapointe nails it, unbelievably. I loved it.

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