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Pickle Me This

August 3, 2017

The Summer Book

I finished The Summer Book this other night, an anthology of non-fiction from BC writers that has proven such a delight and travelled me all the way from June to the end of July. The collection opens with Theresa Kishkan’s stunning essay, “Love Song,” which you can read here, an essay that articulates the magic of summer and all its strange tricks of time and light. I also loved pieces by Eve Joseph (“My memories of summer have as much to do with longing as they do with summer itself….”), Fiona Tinwei Lam on her childhood home and her family’s backyard pool, and other stories of summer love, summer cusps (see Sarah de Leeuw on the summer that began the end of childhood) and summer heartache. Luanne Armstrong’s Summer Break which so perfectly articulates the awful fleetingness of summertime: “I am caught between the beach and the future, between time and no time…” She writes about “how to cope or understand or even live with the world in such a state of frightening fragmentation where there is both the paradisial beach and the black muck of ‘news.'” And goes on, “Fortunately for me, the mountains and lake don’t care… Every day, I walk on the mountains, down to the beach, up through the trees, watching, noticing.” It’s summertime, and the living is complicated. But a book like this gives its reader a similar effect.

August 2, 2017

Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, by Norma Dunning

When I read the article, “What inspired her was getting mad,” about the story behind Norma Dunning’s debut collection, Annie Mukluk and Other Stories, I was not surprised. Acts of justice and revenge factor throughout the book, propelling the stories so terrifically. Dunning wrote her stories in response to ethnographic representations of Inuit people that neglected to show them as actual people, and the result is a book that’s really extraordinary. Because her people are so real, people who laugh, and joke, and drink, and have sex (and they have a lot of sex). Her characters love each other fiercely, family ties are nurtured in spite of obstacles (including residential schools and their legacy) and they all have a great deal of fun playing with the ignorance of the qallunaaq (Anglo-Canadian) and their perceptions of the north.

In “The Road Show Eskimo,” an elderly Inuit woman who found fame as the apparent author of a book about her experiences in the South—except the book was a fraud and it had been written by her white ex-husband—makes money from this endeavour and she even relishes the role she has to play to conform to peoples’ expectations. But on the particular day depicted in this story, the woman is going to take back her identity and use the power she’s been holding all along.

Such power also factors in the story “Husky,” about a HBC Agent who brings his three Inuit wives to Winnipeg where they are all made victims of violent racism—until they aren’t anymore, and the women take matters into their hands in the most fantastic feat of justice.

I loved “Elipsee,” about a man who’s taking his beloved wife out on the land one more time—she’s dying of cancer and this is the one thing left to try, and it actually works, in a beautiful, sad and perfect way, as the couple reconnects with their own history and that of their ancestors. In “Kakoot,” an Inuit man at the end of his life tries to leave this world for the next, which is complicated when you life in an old age home in the south and the spirit of your land and people are hard to come by.

And “Annie Muktuk” is the gorgeous story of two friends, one of whom has fallen in love with the titular character, described as follows:

“What I couldn’t get into Moses Henry’s head was that she just wasn’t Annie Mukluk. She was bipolar. She liked the Arctic and the Antarctic. She played with penguins and the polar bears. Annie Mukluk liked to fuck and she did it with everyone in Igloolik and everywhere else she went. She’d fuck your father, your sister, all your brothers and finish off with your mother. She swung both ways and sideways.”

(This paragraph joins the one about Slutty Marie from Megan Gail Coles’ Eating Habits… as perhaps two of my favourite paragraphs about women with voracious sexual appetites in all of Canadian literature.)

Anyway, the two friends, Moses Henry and Johnny Cochrane are each puzzling out the ways forward in their lives, in a fantastic, ferocious and bawdy novella about love, and brotherhood and friendship. I loved it. In “My Sisters and I,” three amazing women survive their experiences at residential school with their wits and strength, and the punch in the nose at the end of the story is the spectacular and perfectly delivered act of violence. This is justice, which is nice to encounter somewhere, even fictionally, because there’s certainly not much of it in reality. But these kinds of representations of Inuit women are just the beginning…

July 27, 2017

Feast: An Edible Road Trip

If might surprise some people to find that I have blogging advice beyond “Blog like nobody’s reading (because often nobody is)” but if you’ve been reading carefully you will also know that I’m a firm believer that a blog needs room to grow and space to wander. And Lindsay Anderson and Dana VanVeller must have known this too when they began their blogging endeavour a few years ago because they gave themselves an entire nation to wander through. Their blog was called An Edible Road Trip and chronicled their adventures (and misadventures) eating across Canada to discover a culinary culture “beyond Kraft Dinner, poutine, Nanaimo Bars, and butter tarts.”

One of the highlights of my spring and book promotion has been travelling to (and eating in!) different places I haven’t spent much time in before. My blueberry scone at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market was legendary, and then the mind-blowing dinner we had in Waterloo as part of the Appetite for Reading Book Club. And it was in Gananoque at the 1000 Islands Writers Festival where I met up with the women behind Feast, the book that grew out of the edible road trip. The book was already on my radar because of the story behind it and also its beautiful design (and you can read their very cool blog post, “Anatomy of a Cookbook Cover”, here). And then I got to listen to their amazing presentation about their journey across Canada and the people they met and the things they learned about—the farmer in the Yukon whose farm you need to travel to via two canoe rides was one anecdote that surprised me and stuck in my mind. Naturally, I bought the book—and their event was spectacularly catered with local farmers’ market fare and the whole thing was totally delicious. Feast, I figured, would be an excellent souvenir.

The whole idea behind it was a little bit abstract though, practically speaking. It was May by this point and therefore rhubarb season and I proceeded to bake the Lunar Rhubarb Cake (pictured above) at least three times before June. The recipe doesn’t skimp on sugar, and it won rave reviews at every table at which I served it… But still. A nice cookbook to have, but I wasn’t sure how often I was going to use it. And then we went away for a week in Nova Scotia…

And then suddenly a whole bunch of recipes that had merely existed on the page for me before meant something altogether different. Upon coming home, I reread the Nova Scotia page and recognized all kinds of references and was reminded of the very good places we ate on our trip.

The first thing I made upon homecoming wasn’t from Nova Scotia at all, however, but instead the Sour Cherry Pierogi recipe from the prairies. I found sour cherries at a local green grocer and it sounded so delicious, and so I made them (with help from Stuart who was in charge of construction) and they were SO SO good. And then we got to use the leftover compote for porridge.

And I’d wanted to make the s’mores scones all along for reasons that should be altogether self-explanatory, but the mission took on a sense of urgency when I reread the recipe and learned it was from the chef at Two If By Sea, whose croissants were so delectable on our trip that we went to Dartmouth twice. So baking these scones was a little bit like a homecoming, even if for a place that wasn’t our home at all—but the food made it all so familiar.

Which is why we made the seafood chowder the following Friday, even though chowder isn’t always the best thing you can be eating when it’s 36 degrees celsius, but we weren’t sorry. I’d got fresh fish at the grocery store that morning and even though it wasn’t the fresh fish we’d become accustomed to (Stuart ate scallops in Lunenberg that he might never get over—in a good way) it was incredibly delicious and made us miss Nova Scotia a little less. And we’ve still got the oatcakes to make, and a few other Atlantic items to try.

And then after that? Well, between the book and our trip, we’ve never been so inspired to and travel to another new part of the country. And in the meantime we’ll be cooking from Feast because Canada is delicious.

July 25, 2017

The Ravines of Smeared Disarray

“English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things.”

Last week I got tired of narratives that were all too predictable, and so I decided to pick up Pond again, the little book with the gorgeous cover that has been shelved on my staircase since last August. My staircase is book limbo, the books that aren’t to be either shelved or given away. They’re the books I haven’t quite finished with yet, although there is a chance they could linger in unfinishedness in perpetuity. I bought Pond last summer after reading A.N. Devers’ review in which she makes connections from Woolf to Walden, and decrees the narrative as “muddy”:

“Muddiness is not typically a positive description for a narrative, but this mud is sparkling, full of mica and minerals that glitter with color when the sun’s rays hit. It’s through this glistening mud that Bennett’s readers get to mudlark, mucking about in prose that is alternatively deliberate and crisp, surrealistic and unknowable, to find real gems of observation and language.”

I recall that I liked the book well enough, but couldn’t remember any more about it. It hadn’t satisfied me. If it weren’t for the absolutely brilliant cover, to be honest, I might not have even read it all, let alone read it again. (The UK cover was completely unremarkable, not a bit of mica or mineral. It was also marketed as a short story collection there, but as a novel upon its US publication, which is interesting to consider, and also how different the two books must be regarded by different readers as a result of these things.) Anyway, I picked it up again, finally, and was quite delighted to discover inside a postcard I sent myself last summer, which seems sort of fitting with the book’s interiority, and then I got to use the postcard as a bookmark.

The book is curious and amusing, domestic minutia. Disorienting—nobody draws us a map here. The narrator lives in an old cottage on an estate near the coast of Ireland and in one of the stories a neighbour is having a wedding, for which the narrator gives them bunting. And that the narrator owns bunting at all seems kind of incongruous from what we know of her—when does she string her bunting ever—but she’s not telling us everything. In fact, it’s the telling she takes offence to. She is bothered by a sign that’s been put up beside the pond on the property, purportedly to stop children from toppling into it. A sign reading, unsurprisingly, POND: “As if the Earth were a colossal and elaborate deathtrap. How will I ever make myself at home here if there are always these meddlesome scaremongering signs everywhere I go.”

All of which is to say that nothing is labelled in Pond, and everything is mutable, in particular the line between indoors and out, home and away. It’s an uncanny narrative. The lines between then and now are blurry too, in this place so steeped in history, tiresomely so. The thatchers come to do the roofs, and everyone is very excited, but the narrator finds these workers offensive and disturbing. They bother her view. “A leaf came in through the window and dropped directly in the water between my knees as I sat in the bath looking out.”

So yes, I was thinking of Walden and Woolf, and the person who did Thoreau’s laundry, of course. But in the chapter titled “Control Knobs,” I started thinking about Barbara Pym. And about this is a book that contains all my favourite things, actually—jam and bunting—but in a kaleidoscopic fashion. The familiar made unfamiliar, of course, but still, one is home, in a readerly sense. The chapter is decidedly Pymmish in its fixation on ordinary details—the objects assembled in bowls on a window sill, for example, and how light shines through a jar—that are standing in for something deeper, darker and more resonant. Bennett writes, “There are a number of regions in any abode that are foremost yet unreachable. Places, in other words, right under your nose, which are routinely inundated with crumbs and smidgens and remains. And ill-suited specks and veils and hairpins stay still and conspire in a way that is unpleasant to consider, and so one largely attempts to arrange one’s awareness upon the immediate surfaces always and not let it drop into the ravines of smeared disarray everywhere between things….”

This is the chapter where the narrator is referring to the knobs on her stove, which is not a proper stove, but a kind of hotplate one finds in a bedsit, “the two-ring ovens [that] are synonymous with bedsits… One thinks of unmarried people right away, bereft secretaries and threadbare caretakers, and of ironing boards with scorched striped covers standing next to the airing-cupboard door at the end of the hallway.” And then she takes it darker, suggesting that part of its design as an implement for people who live alone in small spaces isn’t just about space considerations, but that one couldn’t kill oneself with such a device, if it came to that. “I certainly couldn’t get my head into my cooker without getting a lot of grease on the underside of my chin for example—and it stinks in there.” Even suicide—as are most things for this narrator—is a matter of practicality.

Strange as though her point of view might be, Pond’s narrator is a sensible woman, preoccupied by compost, which she is meant to empty often, but there isn’t time for that, and so it piles up. She is aware of decay is what I meant, (and of course there is the leaf through the window—this idyl is not perpetual spring),  and the bowl gets empties, or else it doesn’t. She refuses to be pinned down. As might be the case in a novel that used to be a collection of short stories, this narrator contains multitudes. “The postbox gets damp, you see, causing letters or so to pucker and leak, so occasionally I am quite diligent about emptying it and other times my mind is such that I just don’t care enough about what happens to other people’s post.” (Do you love that???)

This woman is alone, and unabashed about being not understood, but she is all right. She is nutty, but she had friends, and parties, and lovers. People stop by and sit on her step for a chat, and she has a pot of parsley growing in soil there, though don’t take that to mean she has a propensity for growing things—she bought it sprouted from a nearby supermarket where it was packed in a plastic carton. She isn’t lonely. She has free time, it seems, but “there are always things that must be done.” Check the postbox, sweep the dust out—because the outside keeps on coming in. And she has one of those doors that open in half, after all, so this is inevitable. The home is not apart from the world, but part of it, and therefore the things we do to care for our homes is work of the world as well. The things you could write about a kitchen hearth are as profound as thoughts about a (Walden) POND just say. It makes me think about doorsteps, and thresholds, and the liminal, and sublime.

Strange and surreal too. I’m still not done with it. I’m feeling like Pond might be going back on the stairs, for another day down the road when I want to read a postcard to myself and to have the ordinary and obvious quite complicated. Like housework, it’s a task that will never be finished, a work-in-progress, the stuff of life.

July 18, 2017

The Weekend Effect, by Katrina Onstad

The very best phone I ever had was a little red flip phone which was ahead of its time in 2004, but this was Japan where all the phones were from the future. The phone fit perfectly inside my hand, and I remember the grip of it, the ringtone,  how coloured lights on the outside lit up when it rang, and mostly what I remember is standing on the train platform at the beginning of another week at work and sending a text to Stuart (who was not yet my husband) that would say something like, “Thank you for another excellent weekend.”

Part of this is that we were living abroad, and I’d been doing so for a few years by then, which had got me into the habit of making the most of my time in a place that wouldn’t be home forever. Part of it too was that we had very few holidays and long workdays, and we were living in a culture that draws a firm line between work and leisure, although with the latter pursued with the same regimented approach as the former. There is nothing casual about leisure in Japan—pursuing hobbies seemed to be more important than actually having passion for the hobbies one is pursuing. While we were living in Japan, I took up yoga, French, cycling, pickling, hiking, and breakdancing, all with varying degrees of failure, and actually contemplated spending a week in silence at a Buddhist retreat, but couldn’t get the time off for that. And the same determined sense of openness and possibility permeated our weekends, which were not actually the weekend, but fell on Thursday and Friday, if I recall correctly. “We take train trips like they’re vitamin pills,” I noted in a poem I wrote about that period, and it definitely helped that the trains were cheap. And so off we’d go on our days off on various adventures, always taking care to return with omiyage, as well as a story to tell.

And so this is the ethos we’ve brought with us through the years, a serious approach to the weekend. I figured that in her new book, The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork, Katrina Onstad would be preaching to the choir, but I picked up the book anyway because I’ve been a fan of Onstad’s writing for as long as I’ve loved weekends. “Weekends are my religion,” I wrote in an instagram post to this effect, somewhat sacrilegiously, I figured, but then I was stirred to encounter in the book on Page 16, “The outline of the weekend is etched in the sacred.” Most religions, Onstad writes, exhort a day of rest—Muslims pray and congregate on Fridays, Jews on Saturday and Christians on Sunday. Perhaps I’m more religious than I know.

Onstad begins her book with history, with the weekend as a labour issue whose origins are much more recent than I would have imagined. Weekends are also an issue of class and consumption, and she explores the idea of leisure and its own changing history. And leisure remains much of the focus of the rest of the book, as Onstad considers what might give a weekend meaning—connection, volunteerism, rest, religion, sports, nature—and those things that might detract from it—shopping, housework, the internet, binge-watching TV. Onstad travels around North America speaking to people who are reinventing the weekend, pushing its limits and making the most of their time off, to demonstrate how the rest of us might do a better job of doing so. And even for me, someone pretty weekend-devout, there was lots of food-for-thought here about how we might make better use of ours, which matters, because—as Annie Dillard wrote—of course, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

We’ve got two things on our side in our family—the first is that I work from home with flexible hours, which means that I can get our household chores out of the way during the drudgery of Monday to Friday 9-5 (although this also means that I’ve spent plenty of time on the weekend huddle over my laptop on a deadline, but sometimes that the price you pay). The second is that our children are not particularly sporty and even if they were, we don’t have a car or the inclination to spend those precious weekend days ferrying them to hockey arenas and gymnastics tournaments. There is an upside to the fact that no one in our household possesses the physical prowess to turn a cartwheel, and so it goes. This winter, we didn’t sign our children up for anything, which meant that we had free Saturdays—for things like the neighbourhood community cleanup, and marching with placards on International Women’s Day, and it gave me a real appreciation for the possibilities of openness and where a single can take you—or even two.

July 10, 2017

Hunting Houses, by Fanny Britt

Here’s my true and somewhat embarrassing presumptuous confession: if I were a Governor-General’s Award-winning author, translator and playwright (with more than a dozen plays to my name) then Fanny Britt would totally be my Quebecois alter-ego. I started considering this idea when I published the non-fiction anthology The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood in 2014, and learned that the year before Britt had published an anthology of essays about motherhood called Les Trenchees, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault—who had also illustrated Britt’s award-winning graphic novel, Jane, the Fox, and Me. I even bought an ebook version of Les Trenchees, although I can’t read French, but I figured if I wanted to read it hard enough I’d figure out how, although I never did. But no matter now, for Fanny Britt’s thoughts on womanhood and motherhood as expressed in her acclaimed novel Les maisons are now available as Hunting Houses, translated by Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli. A novel I read on the first two days of my holiday last week and loved completely, and also I hope there is a fictional world somewhere in which Britt’s protagonist Tessa and Sarah from my novel Mitzi Bytes are sitting in a kitchen having the most delicious gossip.

“There’s some solace in thinking your house will live on outside you, like an extension of yourself, a promise renewed no matter the trials or failures, bestowing sudden meaning on sorrow. Personally, I have a hard time swallowing the whole idea because I have no desire to see others blossom where I wilted—but then I’m not that nice a person.”

But then Britt is that kind of writer, I think. The writer who makes you feel as though you’re privy to some incredible intimacy, or even that she’s written her book with the most uncanny regard for the contents of your soul. I am sure I’m not the only reader who’s come away from Hunting Houses imagining that Britt and I have some kind of spiritual connection, that in some actual kitchen we could be terrific friends.

Anyway, it’s always a kitchen, right? Domestic realms. Kitchens and nurseries. Rooms matter, in particular because Hunting Houses’ Tessa is a real estate agent, an occupation that gives her curious access to other people’s lives. Although it’s in the laundry room where the story begins, where Tessa is being shown the house of a new client, Evelyne, whose selling her house due to divorce. “I don’t yet know that I’m at his house,” is the novel’s first sentence, he being Evelyne’s soon-to-be-ex, who Tessa encounters on a subsequent visit. An old flame of Tessa’s, a mostly unrequited seemingly inconsequential relationship, but one that arrives on the tail of adolescence and just before a jarring trauma, so that she never entirely gets over him, Francis. And then suddenly here he is all these years later, and the two of them make plans to meet.

Is she happy, Tessa, in her life? Selling houses becomes a metaphor for the hollowness at her core, a career she came to after a failure to become a professional singer, and then an early voyage into parenthood, which comes to define her. In a way it doesn’t to her husband, Jim, a trombonist, who has achieved a coveted job in an orchestra. But motherhood being not a full enough answer to the question of how a woman spends her time (as I write about in Mitzi Bytes; as Britt writes, “Is Tessa really going to spend the rest of her life working in a bookstore and having babies?”), Tessa requires something more, and so there is real estate. But there is also swimming lessons, and driving her children to school (and fitting awkward projects just-so into the trunk of her car), and Tessa is also in charge of the sweets on sale at her children’s school’s science fair.

“There’s the organizing committee and its numerous meetings, the first one usually held on a dark windy Wednesday November evening during which no one has anything to say about an event to held months later, but it’s the main source of social interaction for some parents, so I go (one out of every three times) since I don’t want to lose my kingdom.”

There is also Tessa’s best friend Sophie, who’s spent ages trying and failing to get pregnant, and memories of their youth together. And Tessa’s feelings about her life and about motherhood are further defined by her relationship to her own mother, which is complicated. Years before when Tessa was small, her mother took Tessa and her brother and fled her small town marriage and world for a single, free but hard scrabbling life in Montreal—and it’s interesting to read about motherhood from the perspectives of daughters whose mothers aren’t 1950s archetypes, a generation skipped. To be the daughter of a generation of women who made the breaks and took the chances, but learned that these kinds of risk aren’t necessarily the answer to every question. That life is much more complicated than that.

With shades of Virginia Woolf and Rachel Cusk in A Life’s Work and Arlington Park (but less annoying), Hunting Houses is the story of a few days in a life, and it also moves in and out of years. It’s a taut read and its momentum comes from Tessa’s voice and the surprising nature of her perspective, and also from the suspense of will-they-won’t-they as she prepares to meet with Francis again. It’s about the unflagging interestingness of other people’s lives and other people’s houses, and the lives we could possibly lead if we came unmoored from our own. “It was the blessed hour when lights go in houses and curtains have not yet been drawn.” Stories, like lit windows, illuminating countless other worlds.

June 27, 2017

Boundary, by Andrée A. Michaud

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

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

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

June 20, 2017

On the Bearability of Lightness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 1, 2017

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 25, 2017

The Slip, by Mark Sampson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mitzi Bytes

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