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November 13, 2019

Agnes, Murderess, by Sarah Leavitt

“When Did Everybody Become a Witch” was the title of an article a friend sent me a few weeks ago, a friend from my coven, no less, and I was still thinking about the article on Halloween night (of course) when I settled down to read Agnes, Murderess. The second book by Sarah Leavitt, whose first was the acclaimed graphic memoir Tangles: A Story About Alzheimers, My Mother and Me, this one tells the story of Agnes McVee, a legendary 19th century serial killer who ran a roadhouse in 108 Mile House, BC. A woman of whose actual existence there is no evidence, except for a self-published pamphlet by an amateur historian from 1973.

“I have thus felt free to reimagine Agnes’s story from her childhood to her death,” Leavitt writes in her book’s afterward, and the whole book becomes an exploration of storytelling and myth making. It begins on an island in the Scottish Hebrides, where young Agnes lives with her grandmother, who really does seem to be a witch, and her mother, who was stolen away from a genteel life in London by a seafaring man who brought her to his home and then disappeared forever. For reasons that might be familiar if you’ve ever read stories about witches, Agnes and her grandmother are not too popular with the local townsfolk, though she finds an affinity with a young man from the village, and together (desperate times call for desperate measures) Agnes and Seamus find a way for her to escape her grandmother’s yoke and head off to London together. But it turns out that her grandmother wasn’t Agnes’s whole problem after all, or maybe she was because Agnes senses the woman’s presence still haunting her, stirring her, pulling away from the kind of life she is striving for. A life which she glimpses further through a friendship with an upper-class woman who gives her books to read and the companionship she’s looking for—and then a humiliating betrayal changes everything, cementing Agnes’s trajectory toward a life in Canada and, yes, punctuated by acts of murder.

It’s a complicated story, with everything queered—not least of which is the line between truth and fiction. Is Agnes a villain? And if she is, what does it mean that she might have our sympathy? Are we, too, bewitched? And what does it mean that these stories of transgressive women at our particular moment in time? Most interestingly, Leavitt leaves these questions unresolved. As her drawings are simply sketched, so too is the story, providing plenty of room in which the reader can sit uneasily.

November 5, 2019

The Dutch House

I knew I was in trouble the night I was reading in the tub, and then called for my husband to bring in a box of baking soda and a cloth so I could scrub the grout between the wall tiles. My grout is dodgy at the best of times, but it really does take a special level of “not into a book” to drive me to clean my bathroom instead. Which was not the case with Ann Patchett’s latest novel The Dutch House, which I finished reading last night in a two hour whirlwind. Patchett’s books are a bit hit-and-miss with me—truth be told, I didn’t love Commonwealth. I liked it. It didn’t drive me to scrub the tiles, I mean, but it didn’t live up to my high expectations. Oh, but The Dutch House swept me away, and the twists and turns were never what I’d expected them to be. I have no idea how you’d dream up a narrative like this, the form and shape of it, I mean. I’ve been thinking about the specificity of the narrative of Ian Williams’ Reproduction, and this book is similar, the curious shape of family and of life and how few books actually manage to properly express that.

October 24, 2019

Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline

How does an author follow up a success like The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline’s bestselling novel that won so many awards and prizes that they ran out of room on the cover? The most straightforward answer I can think of was also Dimaline’s herself, which was to publish Empire of Wild, a book that’s unabashedly excellent, gripping, funny, gorgeous, and dark. I read this book when I was taking part of in a read-a-thon last weekend. No, not that one that is my life, but the other one, raising money for metastatic breast cancer research. And Empire of Wild was the perfect novel for this experience—I couldn’t put it down, even if I’d wanted to.

It’s a book that reminded me a bit of Bad Ideas, another one of my favourite novels this year, about impossible love and what it means to believe in it. Empire of Wild begins with Joan, whose husband Victor has been missing for almost a year. He’d left the house after an argument they’d had about selling her family’s land. Hasn’t been seen since, though Joan’s not given up hope of his return just yet. And then one early morning, nursing a hangover, Joan walks into a revival tent in a Wal-Mart parking lot and discovers a man she knows is Victor, but he’s also a preacher whose name is Eugene Wolff. So who is he anyway? And what’s up with these holy rollers who seem to turn up in Indigenous communities who are making deals with big mining companies? Add to the mix a Rogarou, a werewolf-like creature from Metis stories, and you’ve got a plot-driven thriller on your hands.

Will Joan succeed in finding her husband again? Is Victor even still alive? With her Johnny Cash-obsessed nephew riding shotgun, Joan sets out to discover the answer to these questions, risking her own life in the process, and the result is an absolute terrific read, as powerful as it’s propulsive, plus the humour even in the darkness, savvy and self-aware lines like, “Sure hope those jackasses haven’t built over the spot. If they have, I hope those scary movies having it right and building over old Indian stuff makes your kids disappear into televisions.”

October 17, 2019

Daughters of Silence, by Rebecca Fisseha

Rebecca Fisseha’s novel Daughters of Silence is dazzling, partly because it’s particularly well crafted, but also in the sense that it messes up your vision a bit, that you’re not quite sure what you’re seeing at first. Because the book is a puzzle, a mystery unfolding, and also a circle. I’m so grateful that I had the chance to read it twice, because it’s one of those marvels, a novel that get better and richer with every encounter.

The first time I read it was in the spring in manuscript form after I’d received a message from its editor, who was once my editor, Bethany Gibson, asking if I’d consider blurbing the book. And Gibson’s passion for the novel as so apparent in her message that I agreed without hesitation. I read the novel, and I liked it, the ending in particular. I wrote, “Featuring gorgeous prose and a most compellingly prickly narrator, Fisseha’s debut novel is a puzzle, a page-turner, and a triumph.”

But then I reread the book two weeks ago in anticipation of my conversation with Fisseha at her book launch last weekend, and I wanted to go back to my blurb if only to underline it emphatically at least a million times.

Fisseha comes at her story with a singular, distinctive style, and a character who’s not here to make friends. No, instead Dessie is working to uncover the truth in her own history, the history of her family, truths she’s spent decades unable to face, hiding abuse and trauma in which the people who loved her were partly complicit, and the reader is simply along for the journey, following Dessie as she makes impulsive leaps and takes her own road. Unable to hide from her past anymore, because she’s stuck back in Addis Ababa, her birthplace, after her plane is one of thousands grounded all over the world after the eruption of an Icelandic volcano. Disturbances in the atmosphere, you know, but where the planes can’t fly, Dessie herself manages to discover some clarity, some answers, especially about the experiences of her mother who has recently died and has been buried in Toronto, not back in Ethiopia as had been what was expected.

In her essay for LitHub “on #MeToo in Ethiopia and Eritrea,” Fisseha writes powerfully about what happens when women decide to tell the truth about their own lives: “Perhaps because of my own predisposition to doom and gloom, I had interpreted Rukeyser’s line the world would split open as a disaster scenario. But now I realize how flexible that line is….The world could split open like a flower in bloom, like a woman shattering the glass that had separated her from true connection. Like the global event that became multitudes of habesha women finally telling their stories online…”

The real-life connections to Daughters of Silence do serve to underline the power of story in general, and in this story in particular, but let them not undermine the fact of what a fabulous work of fiction this novel is. The style, remember? The dazzle. Let Rebecca Fisseha take you on a journey. You will be glad you did.

October 8, 2019

Watching You Without Me, by Lynn Coady

I’ve been a big fan of Lynn Coady for awhile now, since I read Mean Boy back in 2006. I absolutely adored her most recent novel, 2011’s The Antagonist, and I really enjoyed puzzling my way through her Giller Award-winning Hellgoing a couple of years later. Hellgoing, a book that, like the trajectory of Coady’s writing career, is packed with twists and turns, a resistance to the boring, conventional or expected. A resistance that continues right up her latest, Watching You Without Me, a thrilling and engrossing ride of a novel, a most unsettling but utterly captivating read.

Her protagonist is Karen, who returns home to Halifax after the death of mother to take care of things, and to sort out the future of her older sister, Kelli, who is developmentally disabled. The moment both Karen and her mother had been resisting for years, especially after an epic battle they’d had decades before when Karen voiced her refusal to be responsible for Kelli’s care and also blamed her mother for having her identity subsumed into that very thing. But the reality of the situation is more complicated than that, as Karen begins to realize as she becomes reacquainted with her sister and the household, whose demands are made somewhat easier with the curious presence of Trevor, her sister’s care-worker, who, it turned out, had come to play an important role in the family’s life while Karen was away.

But Trevor’s presence is also an uneasy and unsettling one. His familiarity makes Karen uncomfortable, she doesn’t really like him, he has “issues,” as they say, control issues in particular, and a propensity for flying off the handle. But Karen is also desperate, and vulnerable in the wake of her mother’s death, and she allows Trevor to continue to make a place for himself in the household, because he’s kind of a master manipulator, but also she needs all the help she can get.

Karen is a fascinating, solitary figure whose more recent history is glossed over, save her a recent divorce, but her lack of friends and confidantes is conspicuous. An elusive narrator, she sees what she wants to see, and does an effective job of shaping the narrative to her purposes, but there are moments when we see through to the story behind the story, and the story behind that, each of these worthy of novels onto themselves, so many questions—the complexity here is wonderful.

Karen’s story reminds me of the narrator of Helen Phillips’ The Need, recently nominated for a National Book Award. Another sinister book about the unrelenting demands of caregiving and how a person might crack underneath them to make some questionable choices. About how one might take whatever relief they’re offered, even if they know it’s a really bad idea, but it’s rather enticing, the opportunity for just a few moments of rest and also the assurance that somebody else, for once, is in control of the chaos.

Claire Tacon’s wonderful 2018 novel, In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo, also similarly explores disability and families, and the experience of being the adult sibling of a person with developmental disabilities, although the siblings’ parents are still alive in Tacon’s novel, and the idea of what happens once they’re gone just looms on the novel’s horizon. Coady’s novel, unflinchingly, takes the reader right there, that moment of the realization of so many parents’ fears for their children, but what is to be most feared actually arrives in the form of a saviour. And the unfolding story of just who Trevor is and what his intentions are results in a roller-coaster ride of a read—which is a remarkable feat when the reader considers that these are characters who barely leave the house.

October 1, 2019

Life Stories

In terms of books, fiction is my default, the first thing I pick up, the books I tend to write about, no matter how interesting I find actual real life people, and the way that nonfictional characters’ stories are often as rich with symbolism and metaphor, and teach me things about the world I never understood before. No matter too the way that I am always interested in memoirs, which means my pile of life stories to be read is embarrassingly high, and one of my reading projects this fall is the absolutely satisfying one of actually reading them. So here’s my start.

Tiny Lights for Travellers, by Naomi K. Lewis: to say that this is a story about a woman who discovers her grandfather’s diary documenting his escape from Nazi Europe and decides to retrace his steps… is far too simple to describe what’s happening in this book. For starters, Lewis is the least likely person to ever end up in a travel memoir. She has self-diagnosed herself with an actual affliction of being directionally-challenged, and she frequently gets lost in her own neighbourhood. She’s also still raw from her recent divorce, and has a complicated relationship with her Jewishness, as did her grandfather who escaped Nazi Europe, for that matter. But she decides to follow her grandfather’s steps anyway, but her real journey is one that’s internal as she navigates her connections to place, religious identity, marriage, secularism, sex, history, baggage (literal and otherwise), family, her own face, and more. It’s a fascinating and illuminating adventure, and a really beautiful book.

*

In My Own Moccasins, by Helen Knott: I had heard wonderful things about Helen Knot’s memoir, In My Own Moccasins, but I must confess that I bought it because it’s a pocket-sized hardback, a gorgeous book you can hold in one hand, and I couldn’t resist it. Good thing too, because the book is as gorgeous inside as out. Knott tells her story, which is one of seeming contradictions. She grew up in a family that was troubled and loving, she emerged as an activist and leader but struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, all of this overshadowed by her family’s history of colonial trauma and her own experiences of sexual assault. The story is told outside of chronology, each section of the book circling toward the central point, which is the violence of colonialism and also the story of resilience, as Knott fights her way out of darkness and claims the cultural heritage that colonialism would have denied her. It’s a harrowing and generous story, rich with wisdom and power.

*

To Speak for the Trees, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger

Reading Ariel Gordon’s Treed last spring changed the way I see the world, and certainly heightened my reverence for trees, so I was excited to read Beresford-Kroeger’s To Speak for the Trees, a memoir by the acclaimed scientist. A memoir that read somewhat incredulously if it were a novel, because surely it couldn’t really happen that way. Beresford-Kroeger born to an English aristocrat and his Irish wife, who become estranged, and then both die, leaving their daughter an orphan. She could very well be sent away to an orphanage, but instead is left in the care of a neglectful uncle, but she’s also adopted by members of her community and schooled in ancient Celtic wisdom. And she basically spends her career as a botanist proving with science all she’d been taught here, plants as cures and tinctures. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also incredibly intelligent with a photographic memory, and in conventional school it soon becomes clear that she’s an extraordinary pupil. Ireland was long ago deforested by the English, to fuel English industry but also to rob the Irish people of the spiritual power that came with the trees, and Beresford-Kroeger does not get to properly experience a forest until she immigrates to Canada, where she has spent her adult life. She writes about the importance of biodiversity, her quest to find and preserve rare trees, and how trees are instrumental in our battle against climate change. A curious and fascinating book.

*

Outside In, by Libby Davies

Libby Davies’ memoir of her career in activism, Vancouver municipal politics, and as a Member of Parliament in Ottawa was just the balm I needed in the midst of an election that, as expected, as turned out to be stupider than stupid. It’s inspiring, so interesting, and points out the opportunities and challenges of politics, and it was just so wonderful to read about someone driven to service, to make the world a better place, instead of seeing politics as a game, as so many others do (and Davies shows this). An activist since her teen years, Davies’ story is rich and the book is absorbing. It made me believe in the possibility of a better world, and renewed a little bit of my faith in the electoral system.

September 25, 2019

Love, Heather, by Laurie Petrou

“Why would anyone read a book instead of watching big people move on a screen? Because a book can be literature.” —Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I thought I knew what I was getting with Laurie Petrou’s new novel Love, Heather, a book so informed by movie tropes—from Heathers to Mean Girls—that it seemed instantly familiar, like something I had read before. A high school setting, a relationship under strain—Stevie and Lottie have been friends since childhood, but they’ve started high school, and everything’s changing. Plus Lottie’s parents are splitting up, which means that Stevie is losing the stability she’d counted on from her friend’s family since her own parents divorced. And Lottie seems distant, intent on new friendships with a clique of girls in their grade, and this tension only magnifies Stevie’s social awkwardness, so that Lottie pushes her further and further away.

And then suddenly Stevie is all alone, cast out of the cool girls’ group, her missteps in navigating a new social order that she still doesn’t understand bringing her bullying and ridicule. She finds some solace in her love of old movies, and on her Youtube channel where she talks about film, but it isn’t enough, and eventually the bullies find her there as well. It seems there is no escaping them.

But then justice arrives in the form of a new friend, Dee, whose brazenness and daring makes Stevie nervous, but also invites her admiration. With Dee by her side, Stevie begins to make new friends, connecting with other misfits who don’t conform to the status quo. And under the influence of the charismatic Dee, and all the movies they’ve seen, the group begin to seek revenge against everyone who has wronged them, the cliquey girls, the entitled jocks. An exhilarating kind of justice, each act marked with a signature, “Love, Heather,” in homage to the Winona Ryder flick. But then things begin to spiral out of control, and there are questions about whether Dee is taking things too far, but do Stevie and her friends have the power to stop her now that the wheels of vengeance are in motion? When does a victim become a perpetrator? The hero the anti-hero? Where do you draw the line?

And then there was a twist, in this conventional-seeming story. A novel that’s billed as YA, and which underlines that such distinctions are kind of irrelevant, or at least uninteresting. Underlining too the message of the book, which is that adults have no idea what’s going in teenagers’ lives, no matter how well-intentioned they are. The twist in this book: I never saw it coming, and it cast the entire story in a new light, and demonstrated that Laurie Petrou is a master of her craft. Funny how this is a novel that’s so informed by film but which is precisely so powerful because it’s a book and does what only a book can do.

Not a novel for the faint of heart, Love, Heather, is dark and troubling, pulls absolutely no punches, but the reader will be rewarded for her bravery. By how the novel itself is a testament to the powers of literature, but also by how Petrou complicates so many contemporary conversations, which is what our discourse needs right now—writers who dare to stare down the darkness and emerge with important questions, instead of the simple answers we’ve been hearing for so long.

September 10, 2019

Worry, by Jessica Westhead

My friend Jessica Westhead’s roots are showing in her new book, Worry, which follows two acclaimed short story collections and another novel. While ostensibly Worry is a departure—a novel underlined with darkness and suspense, Westhead’s first book with a new publisher, a book marketed to appeal to “fans of Little Fires Everywhere and Truly Madly Guilty“—it’s still undeniably a work of Westhead, with the same attention to the peculiarities of relationships and personal dynamics, misfit characters, and a refusal to flinch in the face of pain or social awkwardness.

And there is social awkwardness aplenty as Ruth arrives at her friend Stef’s new cottage, along with her three-year-old daughter Fern. Awkward from the start, because Stef’s not home, as Ruth is informed by a neighbour, Marvin, who drifts along to the property on a paddle board, and this sets the tone, Ruth with her adherence to rules and schedules, Stef’s refusal to do the same—plus Marvin makes Ruth uncomfortable. Further, Stef and Ruth have a history that stretches back for decades, and she’s even Ruth’s husband’s boss—their relationship has always been complicated. And how complicated their friendship truly is turns out to be one of the novel’s great revelations.

Who is friend and who is foe? What is safety and what’s a threat? The lines are blurred and the stakes have never seemed so high as they are in our contemporary moment of parenting. Ruth’s anxiety about her daughter (and everything) is palpable throughout the novel, and it’s not clear to the reader whether or not it’s unfounded.

Westhead credits Elisabeth de Mariaffi in the book’s acknowledgements for inspiring her “to write my own version of a scary story,” but I see other inspiration too—the way a short story writer turns into a suspense novelist, the agility with which the writer moves from scene-to-scene. That perhaps to move from short stories to suspense-filled novels is not such a leap after all—or maybe leaping is the very point. In Worry, Westhead demonstrates that leaping is precisely what she knows how to do, and her novel delivers with the most assured and powerful landing.

September 4, 2019

Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino

I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to write a post about Jia Tolentino’s essay collection Trick Mirror, but I was set to do some preparatory work before I did. Because these aren’t essays that I’m finished with yet, or completely understand properly. These aren’t blog posts or hot takes that have been churned into book—these are essays 40-50 pages long, and one concludes with, “I wish I had known…that the story didn’t need to be clean, and it didn’t need to be satisfying; that, in fact, it would never be clean or satisfying, and once I realized that, I would be able to see what was true.”

I am still trying to puzzle my way through her incredible “The Cult of the Difficult Women,” which explores the way that Daring Girls pop-feminism becomes weaponized for anti-feminist purposes—”But when the case for a woman’s worth is built partly on the unfairness of what’s levelled at her, things get slippery…” My OOF moment in “Pure Heroines,” about literary girlhoods and the limits of literary womanhood, rich for me with familiar points of reference, when she writes, “You’ll have noticed—surely, you’ll have noticed, though I don’t want to be too generous—that all the characters in this essay are white and straight.”

These essays are trickier than most others I’ve ever encountered, pulling away and pushing on just when you think they’re settled, and resisting tidiness, easiness. So that the reader comes away with their mind still spinning, work to be done. Tolentino offers no conclusions, resolutions. She is not going to do the work for you.

I read a review recently that focussed on the bleakness and despair in these essays, works that make connections between the Fyre Festival and the 2008 financial crisis (and GirlBosses) and a culture of scamming: “There are fewer and fewer options for a person to survive in this ecosystem in a thoroughly defensible way.”

But bleakness and despair was not my takeaway from Trick Mirror, the title a statement on the nature of true and reality, delusion and self-delusion. How do you know when what you see, or what you are, is real? And just when you think you’ve got it settled, it’s gone and changed again. And bleakness and despair was not my takeaway because it took me almost two weeks to finally buy this book, which was sold out at every bookstore I showed up at. And if the demand is so high for these rich and erudite works, essays that aren’t going to fucking let you get away with it or get away with anything… The way I feel every time I see the way that someone (usually Ali Smith) has made something so artful for these torrid time we’re living in—oddly hopeful, even. Not all yet has been lost.

August 27, 2019

The Need, by Helen Phillips

“She and David had a running joke about how they both feared their kids at night the same way that, as children, they’d feared monsters under the bed. Beasts that would rise up from the side of your bed, seize you with sharp nails and demand things of you.”

I’ve been hearing things in the night for my entire life, the sound of footsteps, or maybe the house is just settling, or the sound of the wind outside. What was that? But it’s only since I’ve become a parent that I actually see things, that I awake from sleep with the uncanny feeling of someone standing over me, and I open my eyes and there they are, my worst fears confirmed. (And the fear, I mean, is in addition to the practical matters, that these nighttime visits are generally a harbinger of the fact that I’ll have to clean up puke.)

In her novel, The Need, Helen Phillips zeroes right on this kind of anxiety (albeit regarding an even more sinister nighttime interloper) in the book’s first three sentences: “She crouched in front of the mirror in the dark, clinging to them. The baby in her right arm, the child in her left./ There were footsteps in the other room…”

Molly’s husband, a musician, is away on tour, and she’s just relieved the babysitter. She’s the primary breadwinner in the family, a paleobotonist who works at a site that’s turning up baffling specimens: plant fossils that don’t seem to related to any other living thing on earth, an Coca Cola bottle whose logo slants backward, a Bible that addresses God as “her” and “she.”

Something is askew, but also everything is askew, because Molly has a baby and a toddler, which means she hasn’t had a proper night’s sleep in years, and her hours are consumed by her children’s near insatiable needs and demands upon her. So there is something metaphorical about the otherworldliness Molly is experiencing at work, and we’re to doubt her perceptions—are there footsteps at all?

But the footsteps are real, and the stranger in the other room wearing a deer mask has a bizarre awareness of Molly’s family’s life and their rhythms—and the reality behind this situation turns out to be nothing like what you’ve expected, and it continues to be questionable how much the reader can understand this as “reality” at all.

This is a novel in which everything is true and possible, and nothing is; where a child’s birth and existence contains the possibility of their death; where doubleness is a solution and a nightmare; where the cessation of what seems unbearable is unsurvivable; and where the figurative and literal do battle, as do the fantastic and realistic; and ambivalence has its every nook, cranny and sub-basement explored.

This novel starts off terrifying, and the way Phillips sustains that suspense (moving back and forth between two timelines, plot, twists and pacing) is astoundingly well done. Though I will admit that by the time my biggest questions had been answered (which only invited plenty more questions still, of course) I was less enveloped by the plot—though probably for the best, if we’re thinking about my blood pressure.

All this with a novel that articulates the minutiae of daily life with children like nothing I’ve ever read before, a twisted and brilliant version of Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work.

And then the ending—so dark and banal at once. So subtle that you might even miss it, but the subtlety—of the violence, the brutality, that you could miss it—is the point. The Need is a fast read, but it’s haunting.

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