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January 21, 2021

Little Threats, by Emily Schultz

I really liked Emily Schultz’ new novel Little Threats, a book that read like a cross between Ben Lerner’s Topeka School and Jennifer Hillier’s Jar of Hearts, and was a thriller that hooked me from the start and didn’t let go. Set in 2008, years after Kennedy Wynn is released from prison for a crime she has no memory of committing, the murder of her best friend, Haley, the novel follows Kennedy as tries and fails to reconnect with the world she left behind—her father who drinks away his troubles, her twin sister who’s battling her own demons, Haley’s family who will never believe that justice has been served, and the charismatic older guy turned middle-aged schlub whom Kennedy finally sees through. When producers of a true crime series start knocking around asking questions, the story around Haley’s murder begins to unravel, but will the truth prevail? The plot was a little wobbly in places, and the conclusion less than shocking, but I still really liked this novel, its portrayal of 1990s’ culture, and exploration of girlhood, womanhood, and sisterhood.

January 13, 2021

The Push, by Ashley Audrain

“Sippy-cup sinister” is one of my favourite literary genres, books like Emily Perkins’ A Novel About My Wife, Harriet Lane’s Her, Melanie Golding’s Little Darlings, and other forbears including We Need to Talk About Kevin and Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child.

Helen Phillips’ The Need also falls into this category, and I’m still overwhelmed by how perfectly she nailed the nightmare of being awoken in the night to a small child standing over you. As terrifying as anything you’d ever fear discovering under the bed.

And Ashley Audrain gets that uncanny disquiet in her buzzed about debut, The Push, and a woman for whom motherhood fails to take, raising questions of nature and nurture, and eventually culminating in her worst nightmare.

The novel is wholly successful as a thriller, full of twists and surprises, and so compelling in its ambiguity, even if that ambiguity is enraging, but that’s the point, the nightmare. (My one criticism is that the back stories exploring the protagonist’s maternal lineage seem insufficiently fleshed out and are perhaps unnecessary…)

But I couldn’t stop thinking about The Push in the context of Sue Miller’s The Good Mother, which I had read just before it. A very different novel, but similarly exploring the ways that mothers are not permitted complexity, whether it’s desire, ambivalence, fallibility, or fears.

This is a novel whose effect is to make you uneasy. It resists neat conclusions and doesn’t exactly satisfy, which is not a criticism at all, instead a testament to the novel’s power—The Push isn’t finished with it’s reader even after the reader is finished with it.

I’ll be thinking about this one for a very long time.

January 7, 2021

What I Read On My Christmas Vacation

It’s my favourite thing! Time to read! This December, I took a nearly two-week-holiday from the internet AND from the new releases that occupy most of my reading life to indulge in the titles that have been gathering dust on my shelves for one reason or another, books that are a bit dated, which seem like work, for which there does not seem to be any great occasion to finally pick up and read, and yet I keep them around, waiting for the moment. And that moment is now!

Though Michael Christie’s Greenwood is not quite that kind of book. I bought this one last summer after three excellent booksellers (Kathryn from Lighthouse Books, Allison from Beggar’s Banquet and Shelley from Blue Heron) had cited it as a favourite, but it’s kind of long, and it’s written by a guy, and I was just not that interested, even after Stuart himself had read it, and he made me promise I would read it too (because I have this obnoxious habit of not reading the books he’s read, figuring that he’s read it for both of us). And so it was the first book I picked up on the break, and was it ever wonderful. Stuart describes it as “like Cloud Atlas, but less annoying,” and I just found it enveloping, and rich with hope, and such a marvelously bookish book. Three of out of three superstar booksellers AND Stuart can’t be wrong.

I started reading Greenwood as I picked up Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which I feel like I’m the last person on earth to finally read, and I’ve opted to read it bit by bit instead of all at once, which has the interesting effect of the book being in conversation with whatever else I’m reading, especially Greenwood. Anyway, I am about halfway through now—this is not a book to be rushed—and enjoying it very much.

Something to be read at a faster pace, however, is Agatha Christie’s (no relation to Michael, as far as I know) Crooked House, which I bought secondhand because our family had been reading Marthe Jocelyn’s middle-grade Aggie Morton series, based on Christie’s early life and her works. (Read Jocelyn’s “6 Reasons to Hook Your Kid on Mysteries”) and the fact that I’d never read an Agatha Christie book was certainly an impediment to me fully appreciating what the Aggie Morton series was up to. And I really enjoyed it! Light and fun. I am going to pass it onto my 11 year old to read next.

William Trevor’s Death in Summer was my next read, which also kicked off my focus on Ireland (though the book itself is not explicitly set there, but it’s where the author comes from). I read my first William Trevor novel the summer before last, the super weird Miss Gomez and the Brethren, which I’d discovered in a provincial park camp store and bought for a dollar. William Trevor’s novels (so far…) are so absurd and a bit psychologically grotesque, unflinching in regards to class tensions, and I love them. In this one, a woman dies suddenly, and the question arises of who should care for her 4-month-old baby, which seems more pressing than grief since the woman’s husband is incapable of feeling and never really loved her anyway, and then one of the candidates for live-in caregiver (definitely inappropriate) becomes obsessed with the father, and starts haunting their property, culminating in the baby’s snatching. ACK!

Something lighter, I supposed, after murder and summer death, so I picked up The Mysterious Disappearence of Leon (I Mean Noel), by Ellen Raskin, whose The Westing Game has been a favourite of mine for years. She was also an illustrator and wrote many picture books (and designed the cover for the first edition of A Wrinkle in Time!) and her illustrations appear in this book, which, like all of her other novels that I’ve read, sadly are not as good as the The Westing Game, which was just as silly but had a certain heft. Not so this one, but it was funny, enjoyable, and a quick read.

And then I read Rebecca Solnit’s A Book of Migrations, about her travels in Ireland. I bought this book in 2014 when my local bookshop was going out of business so everything was on sale and I was obsessed with Solnit after reading The Faraway Nearby, but I didn’t feel any real connection to the subject (in spite of my strange Irish name), so never read it, but I should never have underestimated the capacity of Solnit’s writing to be interesting, I loved this book, which was an exploration of Irish history, geography, British colonial, home and rootlessness, and more.

I got three Sue Miller books for Christmas after becoming obsessed with her Monogamy this fall, and The Distinguished Guest lived up to my hopes that her other books would be as good. (I have since also read The Good Mother. OMG, Sue Miller is amazing!!) It’s hard to say what Miller’s novels are about, exactly, to take such a reductive approach, when they’re such a slice of rich, full loves. In The Distinguished Guest, an elderly woman ailing from Parkinson’s who found late-in-life fame as a memoirist—writing about her marriage which dissolved as she and her ex-husband, a minister, disagreed about how their church would support the civil rights movemen, with her husband supporting radical activism, as Lily took a more measured, middle class approach—comes to stay with her architect husband and his wife, the son finding decades’ old resentments rising to the surface. There are no peripheral characters in this novel, each and every one flawed and complicated, and real.

And then, inspired by the Solnit book, I picked up The Dancers Dancing, by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, which has been sitting in my shelf even longer. I don’t know I waited! Set in 1972 as a group of students from Derry and Dublin spend a month in rural Donegal, ostensibly to learn Irish, the book was such a delight. The novel was a finalist for the Orange Prize in 1999, and it’s richly innovative in terms of point of view, the most amazing omniscience. If you like Derry Girls, you will love this book, which is not like Derry Girls that much, but it scratches the itch, you know?

My final Irish selection was Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel The Hotel, which was funny and delightful in places (the part where the clergyman dares to use the bathroom that had been exclusive to Mrs. Pinkerton (including the loofahs!) but in the end I was glad to be done with it, because it was one of those twentieth century novels in which characters talk around around the thing which cannot be articulated, and I eventually cease to care. Still, I like Elizabeth Bowen very much.

And then! I returned to Natalia Ginzburg, whose work was part of my holiday break last year. I bought The City and the House after reading Melanie’s review, and really really enjoyed it. About a group of friends whose connection falls apart after one of immigrates to America, and the house where they’d all spent time is sold, the book is epistolary and the letters were a bit awkward initially (lots of exposition, unnaturally so) but then started to flow so marvellously. I particularly loved that these friends were at mid-life, because I don’t think we read a lot of stories like that. Yes, this is definitely not an uplifting read (everything that could go wrong tends to) but I really loved it.

I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s story collection The Means of Escape after that. And isn’t it funny how sometimes a book arrives at the very wrong time? I picked up the book a few years ago, and found the first story difficult and impermeable, but I think I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind, because all this time later, the story went down a charm, and I enjoyed the collection very much, and the wide range of Penelope Fitzgerald’s approaches to fiction. How can all that come from one mind?

The Fire Next Time was James Baldwin was after that, and I’ve never read James Baldwin before. But he’s the kind of writer whose words are so part of the atmosphere we breathe that so much of the book, right down to exact phrases, were familiar to me. And what can a person really say about James Baldwin, in all his brilliance, eloquence, generosity and righteous anger? The book is wonderful, and (sigh) as timely as ever.

And then I read The New House, by Lettice Cooper, a Persephone Books edition that I bought somewhere used. Published in 1936, it’s basically about everything I’ve spent the last year wondering about, about power, society, and how things ought to work. Cooper was a socialist and her point of view comes across in the novel, but is also interrogated—what happens when a woman refuses to be selfish, for instance? Are there instances in which looking out for one’s self is necessary? It was kind of an alternative twist on Howards End, a grand home being sold as modern estates are popping up across the countryside, and there is a generational divide, a sense that something is being lost, except that “something” involves terrace slums with eight people sharing a bedroom with an outside toilet, while the middle classes fret about being down to two servants. It’s a book that is a bit too informed by ideas, but also Cooper is uncertain enough about those ideas (and still curious) about them that the effect is not off-putting. And she also does a marvelous job at making the most unsympathetic characters human and real and relatable. I absolutely loved it.,

January 5, 2021

Our Darkest Night, by Jennifer Robson

In her first four novels, Jennifer Robson proven herself as a master of popular historical fiction, her books about strong independent women’s self-discovery against a backdrop of World Wars 1 and 2, weaving fascinating historical detail (Robson holds a doctorate in British economic and social history from Saint Antony’s College, University of Oxford) with scintillating narrative. Her books are huge bestsellers, and many writers, having achieved that kind of success, might determine that they’d found their formula and should probably stick to it, but not Robson, whose smash hit fifth novel The Gown did something a little different, set in 1947 as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, bringing to light stories of craftspeople who’d worked the embroidery on the wedding dress and posing vital questions about the devaluing of craft and art in general that tends to be created and appreciated by women.

And now, two years on, Robson—who: full disclosure, is a friend of mine!—has continued to demand more of herself as a writer and also of her readers, releasing Our Darkest Night, which I read on New Year’s Day and think is her finest novel yet. Set in World War Two Italy as Nina, a secular Jew, leaves her home in Venice to hide in the countryside, disguised as a the wife of Nico, a Catholic farmer, as Italy’s fascist government continues to escalate deadly laws targeting the country’s Jewish population—her father has already lost his medical practice, she is not permitted to study, local Jewish associations are being called on supply officials with lists of people they’re connected with.

And so Nina agrees to go, desperately missing home and her family, and Robson does a wonderful job of creating a beautiful dynamic between them of respect and friendship…that has the potential to blossom into something more. The goodness of both these characters and the relationship between them creating a necessary balance to the backdrop of their story, the cruel and brutal reality of racism, persecution, and genocide. Robson doing nothing to blur the sharp edges of the truth of these matters, their violence and devastation. This is not an easy read, but to make it so would be to dishonour the stories of the real people who lived through and were victims of the Holocaust. And how does a writer whose novels feature plucky heroines and smoochy covers manage to do justice to the weight of the history she is telling? But Robson does, deftly, gorgeously.

Nina isn’t plucky—she’s a survivor. And I was trying to think of what the distinction might be exactly, which perhaps is that she comes to the story without naivete and with such a profound sense of who she is and where she comes from—there is a gravitas to her boldness that makes her absolutely unpluckable. She’s a remarkable fictional creation, and Our Darkest Night is a masterpiece.

December 11, 2020

Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is one of the smartest, most illuminating and important books I’ve read this year—or ever. A rich, engaging and fascinating text that draws a connection between India’s caste system, the Nazis’ plans for Germany’s Jews, and America’s racial hierarchy—matter-of-factly, she shows that India and America’s hierarchies are parallel, and also how the Nazis drew on America’s example for their own purposes, though there were certain examples where the Nazis wouldn’t go that far (one instance: the one-drop rule.) And just think of it—when the Nazis think you’ve gone too far.

Americans are not widely known for using examples of other cultures to better understand or even benefit themselves—see: the reasons people come up with as to how measures to fight Covid all over the world couldn’t work in a place like Nebraska; or how while public healthcare functions just fine in Canada, in Florida it would be impossible (I SPEND TOO MUCH TIME READING SOCIAL MEDIA COMMENTS)—and so what Wilkerson is doing here is really radical and profound.

Caste, Wilkerson writes, is like grammar. Not explicitly taught, but absorbed, until it becomes part of the atmosphere, or perhaps foundation is a better metaphor, because everything else is built upon it, and she shares her observations for being able to tell what caste Indians are from by watching their interactions, the natural superiority one might assume to another, even somebody with very good intentions.

I found this book useful in a way that not all books on race and anti-racism have been to me. For the way it illuminating the questions I’ve been having for the last five years (why does the white working class keep voting against their interest? Because perpetuating the hierarchy is in their interest, even if they have to suffer for it.)

This is the kind of book whose reading only deepened the furrows on my brow, because I spent the whole time reading and wondering, “What the fuck?” Did you know that lynchings were once commemorating with wildly popular postcards? And when the postal service finally got wise and banned these, people just stuck the images in envelopes. People who threw glass into pools to keep Black people from swimming in them, and the district that just did without public schools altogether instead of segregating. Bull Connor paying a Black man to shake hands with the mayoral candidate he did not support, and a photographer to capture the moment, because it was unacceptable for a white man to shake hands with a Black man. And the legacy of Robert E. Lee, for whom schools across the nations are named, who got to become a university president after the Civil War (Wilkerson compares this to how Nazi Generals were NOT remembered after World War Two) and Wilkerson recounts a story of his torture of three of the people he enslaved: “Had these and even more gruesome atrocities occurred in another country, at another time, to another set of people other than the lowest caste, they would have been considered crimes against humanity… But the slaveholders…were not only not punished but were celebrated as pillars of society.”

And that this is the culture we are steeped in. (I am not American, but we are still steeped in American culture AND the history of my nation is not so vastly different even if we weren’t). It just seems like such a powerful way to explain the situation, and also to explain why racism is so hard to tackle, which is that racism is underlined by a caste system upon which not only institutions are built but which also informs our sense of self. Racism is just a symptom of a deeper and more insidious problem, which Wilkerson illuminates through a blend of anthropology, history, cultural studies, memoir, and reporting. A framework that has so long been invisible, but once you see it there, you realize it’s everywhere. You realize why the backlash to America’s first Black President, say, has been so awful and vicious, because of how so many are willing to gamble everything to keep that hierarchy intact.

Identifying a problem is the first step toward finding a solution, no matter how difficult finding that solution might be, and to that end, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wilkerson has done something so powerful with this, her second book after the acclaimed The Warmth of Other Suns. This is a book that continues to shift our understanding of race and white supremacy in a moment where we’ve never needed it more.

December 7, 2020

Radical Acts of Love, by Janie Brown

A rule of thumb that’s never steered me wrong is that if a book ever includes “Isabel Huggan at the Humber School for Writers” in its acknowledgements, I should just read it because it’s going to be good.

And since Isabel Huggan herself actually placed the book Radical Acts of Love (which falls into the aforementioned category) into my hands (not LITERALLY, because she gave it first to our friend Beth Kaplan, who then delivered it to my mailbox), my expectations were high for it.

But also perhaps this is the kind of book that you might not pick up UNLESS someone delivered it right to your mailbox, and even once someone does, you wait three months to pick it up, because who REALLY wants to read a series of oncology nurse and counsellor Janie Brown’s vignettes about her encounters with people at the end of their lives.

But oh, you SHOULD. Brown writes about how most people are able to live most of their lives without witnessing a death, and that this kind of distance and our society’s avoidance of thinking/talking about death makes us so ill-prepared for such a necessary part of life.

Death doesn’t have to be scary, Brown writes, or feared—though it can be messy and complicated (most often for loved ones left behind). RADICAL ACTS OF LOVE is a familarization with the process of death, a homecoming of sorts, and it’s warm, rich and even entertaining, remarkable in its scope.

At the darkest time of year, during a year in which so many have lost loved ones, a book like this seems particularly comforting, actually. That the dying of the light need not be raged raged against, but instead embraced as another of the seasons, an open heartedness that can deliver real peace, as Janie Brown’s stories show.

December 2, 2020

Butter Honey Pig Bread, by Francesca Ekwuayasi

One more title that I am glad I got to before the year was out was the debut novel by Francesca Ekwuyasi, Butter Honey Pig Bread, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was fantastic, a debut that was so polished and assured, hugely ambitious in its reach and just as successful in execution…and by page 19 it was clear I’d be baking the cake Taiye makes to celebrate the occasion of her twin sister’s homecoming, salted caramel chocolate. Which was baked before the day was out.

It’s a hugely evocative novel, gorgeous and sensual, rich with foods and cooking, and also with sex. Although it begins with something more unearthly, the birth of Kambirinachi, a Nigerian woman presented as an Ogbanje, “a spirit that plagues a family with grief by dying repeatedly in childhood and being reborn.” Except that Kambirinachi cheats the system and clings to her life, but she will pay a price for this. Which is how she explains tragedies that befall her when she loses her parents, and her husband dies, and then something terrible and traumatic is suffered by her twin daughters that tears the rest of their family apart.

The three strands of this novel belong to Kambirinachi and her daughters, Taiye and Kehinde, who grow up estranged from each other and head out into the world apart. Taiye goes to London, and then studies cooking in France, and eventually arrives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before returning home to care for her ailing mother. Meanwhile, Kehinde is left behind when her sister moved to London, and makes her own way to study in Montreal and build a life there.

At the beginning of the novel, Kehinde is arriving home to Lagos with her new husband, meeting her mother and sister again for the first time in years. We learn her story in the first person, seeking to make sense of her traumatic past and move forward in her life. Similarly, Taiye’s tells a story that blends the present day experience with what she’s been through in her life, and finally their mother’s story is told chronologically, adding necessary context to the twins’ experience—for the twins themselves and the reader alike.

The progress of the novel is these three strands becoming re-woven together, braided tighter and tighter throughout the narrative. It’s a novel that in many ways reminded me of Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread, for themes of family estrangement, loss and mystery, and also food, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone who enjoyed that book.

I also appreciated its treatment of Black communities among the diaspora, Nigerian Taiye in Halifax visiting the Africville museum commemorating that city’s historic Black community, and the other Africans she meets in London. And that a novel creates such a powerful sense of place in so many different places—Lagos, London, Montreal, Halifax—is also a remarkable achievement.

Butter Honey Pig Break is a standout debut, and as much as it will make you hungry, it will also more than satisfy.

November 19, 2020

Two Trees Make a Forest, by Jessica J. Lee

Yesterday, just the day after I’d finished reading it, Jessica J. Lee’s second memoir, Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts, was awarded the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize. Lee is also author of Turning: A Year in the Water, a book that literally changed my life (after reading about her breaking ice with a hammer to swim in the dead of winter, how can I ever not just plunge into summer water ever again? There are no more excuses…) and which is distinguished by being one of the few books I’ve ever gotten rid of to regret. I have lots of books and live in an apartment, so I pass along most of my books once I’ve finished with them, but it turned out that I wasn’t finished with Turning after all. One of these days I’ll be replacing my copy, but in the meantime, there is Two Trees… which I’m never giving up. I learned my lesson the first time.

Lee’s work is an entrancing blend of nature writing and memoir, her stories grafted onto the landscape in a way that illuminates everything. And she’s got an eye for metaphor, or maybe it’s obvious. The book begins with the idea of “island,” which in English is defined by its relationship to water, but in Chinese (a civilization grown inland from the sea) the character for island includes a bird sitting on a mountain. Taiwan, from which her mother came (her parents fleeing there from mainland China after World War Two, an island that had always seemed particularly remote and distant to Lee, who felt more connected to her father’s culture in the United Kingdom, and was unsure of her own relationship to Taiwan and its culture.

The book braids together the story of Lee’s grandparents, which she discovers from a letter written by her grandfather and recordings she’d made of her grandmother before she died, along with a travelogue of Lee’s own discovery of Taiwan during trips during her 20s and 30s (including one with her mother, and another longer stay to improve her Mandarin), and the natural landscape of Taiwan, with mountains, and forests, rivers and coast. The land is fraught, prone to earthquakes and landslides, exacerbated by deforestation in Taiwan during its period of martial law until the 1990s. (In those years, Lee writes, conservation was suspect. Binoculars could be a tool of espionage…)

I know always nothing nothing about Taiwan, and its complicated history. I knew a bit about the Sino-Japanese War of 1937, which prompted a ceasefire in China’s civil war between the Communists and Nationalists and pushed mass populations westward and the Japanese invaded, because I’d read Janie Chang’s The Library of Legends in the spring. I’d been accustomed lately to thinking of Taiwan as “the good guys,” and had no idea about its oppressive history throughout the second half of the 20th century, its own kind fraughtness in addition to the earthquakes and landslides.

Lee’s eye for detail, her beautiful prose, and broad depth of knowledge (underlined by her remarkable curiosity) about the natural world make Two Trees Make a Forest a remarkable read. Her ability to see and weave patterns from disparate materials make the story surprising and engaging, and results in a book with considerable depth, a book fascinating in its specificity but also rich with general knowledge.

This is a book for anyone who ever wondered where they belong, who feels detached from stories of family, who revels in natural spaces and the stories they tell, and the incredible illuminations these spaces can grant us as we yearn for connection in the world.

November 12, 2020

Monogamy, by Sue Miller

Sue Miller is one of those ubiquitous American older woman writers I know nothing specific about, occupying the same part of my brain that Anita Shreve does, very 1990s’ Oprah’s Book Club. I read and reviewed her The Senator’s Wife in 2008, early on my book blogging career, although I don’t remember anything about the book or my review, but looking back, I’m proud of the young reviewer who provided the following insight: “Revelation more often does come in a glance, in a breeze, the turn of a head and the expression on one’s face. The sort of thing you can hardly put your finger on, and certainly cannot explain.”

I became interested in her latest novel Monogamy after reading Richard Russo’s review in The New York Times, and I bought the book with my ticket to the Book Drunkard Festival (tonight!). Reading the novel over the last couple of days, and it was one of those books I was disappointed to get to the end of. It was wonderful. Why have I not been reading everything Sue Miller has ever written in the years since The Senator’s Wife? (And why was I waiting for permission from Richard Russo to find her work interesting?)

The novel presents as realism, so real that certain moments are excruciating in that way (it seems) that only real life can be. Misunderstandings, and miscommunications, secrets brought to the surface, words that should never have been said but can’t be taken back. And heartbreak, and heartache, the devastation of grief, the unease of a life’s foundation beginning to crumble.

The ways in which characters are never truly known to each, or—even worse—the inexpressible things we know about the people we love and wish we didn’t.

But in a way, the novel is not realism at all, at least not in a literary sense. Beginning, middle and end. Climax and denouement. Central protagonist and secondary characters. A narrative line you could draw on the page.

When if you started to draw the narrative of Monogamy, the lines would turn to swirls intersecting with swirls, an abstract creation, a web. Strange and dazzling.

At the centre of the web, purportedly, is Graham, a man of large character and appetites, a character whose absence we understand after his sudden death because we’ve been following his point of view intermittently through the first third of book. But the centre shifts as the story proceeds, from character to character—Graham’s first wife, his son and his wife, and Graham’s daughter with his second wife, Annie, and it is is Annie to whom this story mostly belongs. But not entirely—from the other characters, we learn perspectives (including perspectives about Annie herself) that Annie has no idea about. And perhaps it’s the reader who is the centre of the novel after all.

They are recognizable, so many of these moments. “The sort of thing you can hardly put your finger on, and certainly cannot explain.” This is a novel about marriage, and family, and gender, and art-making, and generation gaps, and mother-rage, and friendship, and aging, and widowhood, and independence. About loyalty and betrayal, and love and forgiveness…but never is the story one-dimensional enough to be about just one of these. A many sided object catching the light in different places every time, strange and dazzling, like I said. Like life itself is.

Which is just an illusion, of course. Miller writes about Graham once explaining that the appeal of fiction is that it suggests our lives have shape after all, sequence and consequence, and that there is meaning in the randomness, the unfathomableness. And that this book manages to critique art as life, and then be art as life at once, and my mind is spinning, and what a testament to the novel is that.

November 5, 2020

Fake It So Real, by Susan Sanford Blades

One day I’m going to write a list of all my CanLit aversions (among them, the notion of “CanLit” at all), and near the top of the rankings will be Alice Munro as a lazy and meaningless cultural shorthand. Sometimes, though, the comparison fits, and Susan Sanford Blades’ debut, Fake It So Real, is a case where the comparison might be apt.

First, because the book is a novel/story collection hybrid ala Lives of Girls and Women, moving between first and third-person narration. The city of Victoria setting too, and the book’s complicated and messy depiction of motherhood and womanhood, women who chafe at the limits of “wife” and transgress them. Alice Munro, but make it punk? Beginning in the 1980s, as Gwen gets together with a charismatic musician and has kids before he blows out of their life altogether. She struggles to keep it together and mainly doesn’t, unable to quit drinking and wracked with social anxiety. This is not a story of happily ever after, but instead one of hardscrabble and losing, fucking up over and over again. Which doesn’t make for the most compelling argument to read this book, I realize, but it’s also just really really good, crafted with care and precision.

I felt this way when I fell in love with Leona Theis’s If Sylvie Had Nine Lives in September, a book whose effort never shows, whose seams and joints are invisible. It just works, and as a reader, it’s such a pleasure to submit to a book that’s so well constructed. To let it take you where it goes, and this one goes through the decades as Gwen’s daughters, Sara and Meg, make their own way into the world, try to account for their parents’ failures, attempt to make their own families in different ways, inevitably failing to live up to ideals, as one might expect, but I appreciate the way that Blades interrogates motherhood while not evoking the usual cliches. Her characters’ experiences are singular and interesting, and rich and fraught with complication.

Fake It So Real manages to be not a glorification of counterculture or a condemnation of it either. This is not a book that comes with an agenda, except to tell a story of love and family that is achingly real.

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